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Workplace injuries prevention alongside a robotic colleague

Working alongside cobots, aka collaborative robots, will soon be par for the course in manufacturing facilities in California. Robotic technology has come a long way since the first robot was installed in a General Motors plant in the 1960s. That was a monstrous, caged machine that followed human commands. In contrast, cobots share the workspaces of humans and perform memorized tasks. They can even be programmed to respond to what is happening around them -- but will they pose a threat of workplace injuries?

Because of the interaction between collaborative robots and their human colleagues, they are not isolated behind cages. Safety measures include manipulator arms that are lightweight to prevent serious injury if there is contact. They are fitted with force and proximity sensors, 3D cameras and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors to ensure safe interaction with humans.

More and more robots are being utilized in agriculture and facilities such as fulfillment centers, light manufacturing and logistics. The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) recently signed an alliance with two safety agencies. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will work with RIA to advance worker safety along with robotic development.

Although no serious worker injuries have been reported involving collaborative robots, human interaction with large professional service robots has led to fatalities in the past -- mostly during maintenance and repairs when robots had to be powered up for testing or troubleshooting. California employees who have to work alongside cobots might find comfort knowing that the workers' compensation insurance program will cover medical expenses if they should suffer workplace injuries. If their injuries prevent them from returning to work for a period of time, a percentage of lost income will also form part of the benefits to which they will be entitled.

Source: zdnet.com, "Robots are coming to work. Are they safe?", Greg Nichols, Oct. 10, 2017

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