01 September 2022

Robot Safety: Harm-Free Solutions and Healthier Environments

Let’s be honest—a robot’s presence at an operation site is nothing to take lightly. Beyond bringing new life to your warehouse or distribution center (DC), a robot is a powerful and fast-moving piece of machinery.  Just like any form of automation, a lack of preparation or training can lead to dangerous situations. 

Yet, just as doctors take their Hippocratic Oath as they prepare to practice medicine, our engineers take one of their own, promising that their creations will do no harm to the people they’re intended to help. They know that a well-formed solution must come with its own built-in safety precautions. The inclusion of this essential part of a solution gives it the ability to not only protect operators from itself, but also the potential to actually further improve the safety of the operation in which it’s installed. 

What Makes a Robot Safe?

When it comes to the creation of a safe and risk-free robot, robotics companies must adhere to the standards put in place by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO.) These standards set in place the criteria for robot safety, and a solution made up of electrical and mechanical components that follows them is guaranteed to have the very least potential to cause harm. 

Sense-Optimized Solutions

The greatest risks of injury are presented when robots do not have any sensory capabilities to observe their surrounding environment. This means that, at times, measures are needed beyond just demarcations or fencing around the solution’s site. Light curtains are often paired with physical barriers and strategically placed around a robot. 

Light curtains act as safeguards against intrusion. Any form of disruption during the palletizing process will cause the robotic solution to come to a complete emergency stop, or e-stop. No matter what status the process is at, the robot will halt it immediately the moment it senses an intrusion. It will only continue working once that intrusion has been removed. Further, light curtains ignore incoming pallets, while implementing these safety measures, they are still conducive to continued operational continuity.

When it comes to ensuring worker safety, LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, has the diversity to be utilized on various fronts of an operation. LiDAR scanners can be integrated with mobile robotic solutions to provide them vision, helping them identify objects—or people—in their plane of detection. As a result, workplace collisions and resulting injuries become an issue of minimal concern for logistics locations.

LiDAR can also be used as a literal barrier to injury around more stationary solutions. When a safety LiDAR field is set up around a robot, it allows it to form a plane of detection sensitive to all intrusions. This plane can be configured so that when a breach is detected from a certain distance, say 25 feet, the robot begins to slow down. When that presence is detected a bit closer, for instance, at 15 feet away, a full-on e-stop will occur. 

Another benefit to utilizing safety LiDAR sensors is that they negate the need for physical barriers or fencing, allowing for optimized use of the operation’s floor space. This further exemplifies the very possible coexistence of increased functionality and safety when utilizing automated intelligence. 

The Trusted Lockout-Tagout Process

Although it’s not exactly a new development in the use of warehouse machinery, a proper lockout-tagout (LOTO) procedure can still hold value when implemented with automation. LOTO is utilized to prevent the release of hazardous energy and accidental operation, which pose a risk to workers performing maintenance on a robot or simply while approaching one.

This safety standard is made possible through the attachment of an energy isolating device to a lock or tag, which can be manually toggled to cease the operation of the robot. This gives the operator complete control over its mobility, ensuring their safety while they conduct maintenance and or make necessary adjustments.

It’s possible that the LOTO process will be made even more efficient in the upcoming years. While OSHA currently prohibits the use of electrical switches and push buttons as part of the procedure, they began to conduct research in 2019 to reconsider their potential use. By authorizing electrical circuits in the LOTO standard, further integration with the robotic solution system itself may be possible, allowing robotics companies to provide state of the art systems that operate smoothly and cohesively with their intelligent machinery.

Combating Workplace Dangers

It’s well-known that warehouses, DCs, and the like can be hotbeds for workplace hazards. The type of intensive, large-scale work that goes on in them can make avoiding injury difficult for even the most experienced and attentive of workers. By taking on back-breaking, uncomfortable, or repetitive tasks, robots are able to mitigate or even fully eliminate some of the risks that come with working at these operations.

The Aches and Pains of Lifting

A clear and continuous risk to operator health is the task of manual lifting and loading. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cites it as one of the greatest opportunities for injury. A fit, generally healthy employee can still experience back pain or injury from the continuous lifting of 50-100 pound loads.This process of handling as well as the requirement of repetitive motions increase the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as sprains, tears, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and hernias. 

These MSDs acquired in the workplace are one of the leading causes of lost or restricted work time, which is harmful for both the operators, who are losing pay while also suffering from pain, and the operation itself, which has lost a member of their team for the time being.

With the integration of a capable robotic solution, the need for workers to engage in such repeated heavy lifting is erased. Palletizing, a process which requires the continuous placing of oftentimes heavy loads, is a task perfect to hand over to a robot. Such automated palletizers can easily support 100 pound boxes and sort them into neatly planned pallet formations, which also rids operations of the harm that comes with improperly stored and stacked materials. Strained or torn muscle and aching backs become a thing of the past for any operation taking advantage of robotic palletizing and depalletizing. 

Forklift Accidents

Both prior to this palletization and upon its completion, the transportation of these loads presents another opportunity for injury. To move a large assortment of boxes, a forklift is required more often than not. OSHA cites forklift usage as the standard most commonly cited in operation citations. 95,000 employees are injured while using forklifts each year, while 100 are killed, with forklift turnovers as one of the leading causes.

The demand for operators to continuously operate such powered machinery is abated by the incorporation of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs.) Not only do these mobile solutions allow safe transportation from one staging area to another, but they do so while also increasing an operation’s overall efficiency and throughput. Through the use of SLAM navigation, they can intelligently navigate your warehouse, all while sensing and avoiding obstacles that could easily escape a forklift operator’s field of vision.

Height-related Injury

In multiple areas of a warehouse or DC, items are being stacked to heights at or beyond the limit of human reach. This results in yet another opportunity for MSDs to set in as strain is placed on the body. Besides these disorders is the likelihood of just one wrong move during pallet or single item retrieval to cause a fall, which, depending on the height of it, can result in catastrophic injury for the operator. 

OSHA reported such an incident in 2017, where in an attempt to reach inventory on an elevated shelf, a worker stood on a wooden pallet held up by a forklift, slipped, and experienced a fatal fall. Others have had entire shelving units give way and collapse on top of them, causing anything from lacerations to broken bones. 

AMRs are able to combat the potential for harm caused by the vertical scale of logistics operations. Solutions such as the DoraART use autonomous reach trucks to retrieve pallets or place overhead pallets with ease. With the ability to reach over 4x higher than a human can alone, operators will no longer have to overextend themselves and enter harm’s way to get to elevated items. 

Intelligent palletizers can offer the same benefit. Once pallets are stacked above waist level, most manual operators will need the help of a ladder to continue, creating another environment where a fall is likely to occur. The DoraPalletizer’s ability to stack pallets 120 inches high makes it an ideal alternative to the dangers that come with traditional pallet building. Its use of load planning software helps build up the integrity of pallets, meaning that falling boxes due to misalignment are no longer a worry for warehouse workers.

While this may come as a surprise, OSHA does not currently have any robot-specific standards set in place. This lack of predetermined guidelines truly places the creation of safe automated machinery in the hands of engineers. Warehouses have been notorious for their threats to employee safety, but with the adoption of intelligent, secure robotics, that infamous “Days Without an Accident” sign can officially be trashed.