A safe workplace is one where employees can work without risk to their physical or psychological health and wellbeing. A positive safety culture in the manufacturing sector is one where training, personal protective equipment (PPE), machine guarding, and other best practices are regulated and enforced to ensure safety is foremost.
What is considered a safe workplace today is a far cry from what it was just decades ago. It continues to be a work in progress, but constant and rapid changes taking place make it difficult to keep up at a legislative level. This is especially true of regulations pertaining to advanced manufacturing and the integration of robotics into manufacturing processes. The integration of advanced technology, robotics and automation in the manufacturing environment is not a new phenomenon, but the rate at which it is taking place seems faster than regulations can be developed and implemented.
Automation in manufacturing has been ongoing for decades as companies pursued process optimization, improved productivity, reduced costs, and improved outputs. In the 1990s, manufacturing was intensely focused on the issue of quality, shifting to safety the following decade and sustainability the next.
From a safety perspective, there are countless reasons automation has improved the manufacturing environment. Machines can be used to directly shield employees from unsafe and hazardous work environments where high temperatures, poor conditions, heights, waste, toxicity, and other dangerous variables can be an issue.
Automation enables workers to work at a distance and can operate more efficiently for longer periods of time without being subject to the limitations of human capacity. However, where they are a boon to manufacturing, they can also be a liability.
Trends today show a move from caged robots to increasingly collaborative robots that work alongside humans, but that also introduces a new host of regulatory challenges and matters of safety that must be addressed.
One of the major disadvantages of advanced technology and automation, especially in a modern manufacturing environment, is the complicity of human behavior that can result from the integration of robotics, which becomes a major safety risk.
This risk is being exacerbated as more and more manufacturing operations reshore from low operating cost (LOC) countries where they fled in search of low wages and lax environmental and employment standards, where their highly manual processes could be done for much cheaper.
Reshoring from these LOC countries has been on the rise since 2010. With the predominance of advanced technology, low wage, unskilled and highly manual tasks could be completed by robotics making offshoring to LOC countries less viable.
Further, wages in LOC countries were on the rise with standards of living, which effectively eliminated the advantage of the wage differential. As an example, wages in China increased 80 percent between 2008 and 2011.
For many companies, rising wages, quality issues, threats to intellectual property, currency fluctuations, tariffs, trade wars, language and cultural differences and the increasing uncertainty of global supply chains are no longer worth the savings of operating abroad in LOC countries. The COVID-19 pandemic brought many of these issues to light on a far greater scale.
An increasing number of companies are returning to their home countries, attracted to the highly skilled, high wage labor it left behind, the training and education systems designed to support talent development, and the security of domestic supply chains and regulations. These conditions are ideal for capital intensive advanced manufacturing operations.
The integration of robotics frees workers from highly repetitive manual tasks for more valuable, highly skilled tasks rather than labor intensive, repetitive activities which improves productivity, accuracy, quality, as well as rates of safety, efficiency, and predictability.
Just as the value of labor increased, so too did the prioritization of health, safety and wellbeing of the worker who is necessary to support the machinery and the processes with a degree of intuition robots are simply not capable of. This was achieved through regulations.
There is no doubt about it that if regulated correctly, automation can serve to improve safety and wellbeing in modern manufacturing operations, but the challenge then becomes, how to create sound regulations and how to navigate the various standards that are unique to each market.
For instance, standards, regulation, and enforcement differs from country to country, even from state to state. Canada and the U.S. are two relatively similar markets that rely on one another for a great deal of trade, but they operate in accordance with different standards and have different regulatory bodies and enforcement mechanisms.
In Canada, on a national level, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), has been the federal body dedicated to the advancement of workplace health and safety since 1978. Each province then has a dedicated enforcement agency. In Ontario, Safe At Work Ontario is the Ministry of Labour strategy to protect worker health and safety by enforcing the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
In the U.S., the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor that was established under the Occupational Safety and Health Act to protect workers on the job. It both sets and enforces health and safety in the workplace.
OSHA came into play in the 1970s and attempted to regulate most, if not all, of private sector employers based on three strategies: strong, fair, and effective enforcement, education and compliance assistance and partnerships and alliances with local governments and the private sector.
OSHA has been developing guidelines for safe automation and robotic integration for several decades to ensure that workers are adequately trained to use the equipment and that necessary safeguards like machine guarding are in place.
While OSHA aims at regulating employers that operate machinery, placing the responsibility on the machine purchaser and ultimately, employer, to ensure safety, in the EU machine manufacturers and integrators are tasked with designing safety into the machinery.
Both approaches, though different, have had success in regulating and managing worker safety in an advanced manufacturing environment and demonstrate that there are multiple ways safety can be prioritized.
Safety in manufacturing requires a close relationship between industry and lawmakers via trade organizations and union representatives to ensure regulations and enforcement are relevant and uphold principles of safety that are applicable to industry specific processes and applications.
Organizations like the Robotics Industries Association (RIA) is a trade group based in the U.S. that has served the robotics industry since 1974. It does so by advancing knowledge, research and development, and most importantly, safety standards for robots to better manage and understand their adoption and integration into workplaces across industries and sectors.
Some of the new trends in safety that have emerged with increasing integration of robotics and advanced technology are matters of cyber security, as the Internet of Things and its role in the manufacturing sector has yielded a whole new regulatory landscape that is ripe for consideration.
The Internet of Things also promises a frontier for new products and applications like smart equipped PPE and wearables that can not only improve performance on the worksite but can be programmed to integrate safety using high technology sensors and enabling technologies.
These advanced tools can collect data, provide real time analyses, and can include location systems and location-based analytics, but unregulated, they pose a challenge to lawmakers and a risk to worker safety in advanced manufacturing environments.
It is clear that in manufacturing, change is inevitable, chiefly the rapid rate of change brought on by the introduction and integration of advanced technology and robotics and if the last five decades has been any indication, the sector shows no signs of slowing its technological evolution.
Change is a necessary part of growth, as is the need to adapt, meaning regulations need to consider and accommodate the new way of doing things and the new opportunities and risks that accompany them in order to preserve safety while leveraging the many advantages of robotics and advanced technology in manufacturing.