Machine Safety: More Than Just Protecting Workers

Aug. 1, 2016
With new capabilities around collaborative robots and other integrated technologies, manufacturers could boost production efficiencies while also improving safety.

As systems integrators, we work with companies across all industries to evaluate manufacturing conditions and, when required, develop remediation strategies to minimize worker injury or machine damage. When we go through the analysis of the machine and manufacturing environment, we often find that not only could companies improve worker safety, but efficiency as well.

Many companies use machine guarding (fencing) to keep employees working with dangerous machinery safe from harm. This type of safety approach could limit productivity and require significant floor space. With the rapid adoption of light curtains and area sensors, integrated solutions can increase the level of safety beyond what can be achieved through physical barriers while also minimizing costs and increasing productivity.

Conducting a thorough safety assessment is the best way to evaluate your existing manufacturing environment. Start by identifying sources of hazards, estimating the likelihood of a particular risk to occur, and then determine whether that level of risk is acceptable or needs to be mitigated. By using a risk tree, companies can gain a broad understanding of their hazards and which of those are acceptable, which should be mitigated in the future, and those that require immediate action.

As part of the assessment, assign every operation in your plant a risk category based on the risk tree’s parameters. Highlight any existing deficiencies. Your immediate focus should be to address the scenarios that represent the highest probability of injury.

As companies go through their risk evaluation, it is important to not only consider hazards, but also look at the overall process to see if there are other areas of improvement that would increase efficiency. Consider how parts are presented to a machine, how they are loaded and unloaded, where the worker stands, etc. Often, when you reevaluate the process or work environment, improvements can be made to ensure safety and improve efficiency.

As we all know, robots are becoming more and more prevalent on the manufacturing floor. As with any machine, there are defined safety protocols that must be followed to ensure worker safety. ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012 is the safety standard that relates directly to robotics and robotic work environments, and it is what the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) relies on when determining compliance with applicable safety regulations. This standard provides robotic integrators and users with the guidance to properly use the safety features embedded in robots, as well as how to safely integrate robots into factories and work areas.

The adoption of smarter and more collaborative robots will continue to break down the barriers between workers and machines. Soon, workers will be able to walk into a work cell without forcing the robot to come to a complete stop. Instead, the robot could slow down or alter its path based on sensor and software feedback. This dynamic collision-avoidance environment allows the robot to respond to changes in its environment, which increases flexibility and utility on the floor.

With the increasing capabilities and complexities of technology, putting a priority on industrial safety is more important than ever. Plus, you get several bangs for your buck: greater reliability, increased productivity and, most importantly, a proactive way to avoid injuries and unplanned costs stemming from unsafe operations.

Safe machine work cells can be part of a larger industrial automation project or a retrofit. Both approaches will produce tangible results when it comes to machine safety, which is essential for protecting both your employees and equipment.

Michael Gurney is CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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