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Safety Best Practices for the Age of Automation

Ed Sinkora
By Ed Sinkora Contributing Editor, SME Media

As automation grows, so too does the need for safety awareness and remediation

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Virtual safety training enables people to learn through their mistakes, yet without risk.

Automation has been an understandable focus in manufacturing for years now. And despite the recent wave of layoffs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the push will probably continue.

As Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development at Universal Robots USA Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., sees it, the sudden availability of more labor won’t change the trend toward automation because manufacturers are “not going to be able to fix the labor problem with people who are displaced from other industries. They don’t have the skills or the interest in the factory. You’re not going to take a mortgage processor and put him or her in the middle of a manufacturing plant. If you tried, it would cost a fortune in training and at the end of the day, the satisfaction for that job would be extremely low.”

But, automation comes with its own set of risks to the safety of those who are in the factory. Here is how best to keep employees safe in a shop that has more and more automation.

It All Starts With Risk Assessment

The first stage in ensuring the safety of your personnel is identifying and quantifying the dangers they face. Luckily, vendors are working hard to minimize those risks up front. Or as Universal Robots’ Global Technical Compliance Officer Roberta Nelson Shea put it, “Every stage in the supply chain is in effect doing a risk assessment. We, as manufacturers, do a risk assessment so that our product is designed, constructed, put together, even put in a box, such that risks are lessened to the extent that we foresee.”

As Glenn Nausley, president of industrial equipment manufacturer Promess Inc., Brighton, Mich., explained, today’s equipment generally has safety “built-in” to include a level of redundancy. “Whether it’s being monitored by a safety relay or by a safety PLC, you can’t have one failure that creates a safety liability in a station or a machine.”

That means if counting on a door switch for safety, it must have two contacts so that if one contact fails, the other one will still stop the machine. The machine is not allowed to start up again until it’s repaired. If depending on a light curtain, it must have a dual circuit and both circuits must agree on whether the light curtain is broken or not.

Nausley also explained that manufacturers follow ISO guidelines in establishing required “performance levels” for the safety-related control systems in their equipment. These guidelines consider the severity of potential injury, the degree of exposure to the hazard, and the possibility of avoiding or limiting the potential harm. For example, if it’s “maintenance that has to be done once every quarter, and you use a very specialized, skilled person, then you can be a little less safe… But if it’s a high-volume, high-exposure type of environment, the operator shouldn’t be able to hurt himself if he falls asleep while running the machine.”

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Break the light curtain on this Promess electric press and it will stop before injuring the operator. Advanced features allow for safe press movements even when the light curtain is broken.

Promess makes electro-mechanical presses and torque units that go into assembly, press fit, crimping, staking, and similar systems. For routine operation, its equipment’s safety functions meet Performance Level (PL) “PLd,” which has a probability of dangerous failure between 0.00001 and 0.0001 percent per hour (the second highest rating). Some of its maintenance safety functions are built to the “PLc” level (0.0001 to 0.0003 percent). Nausley added that the safety controls are often more sophisticated than simply “go/no go.” For example, the light curtain might allow an operator to approach a press as it’s retracting, because “it’s safe moving in that direction. But if the press changes direction and starts coming down it will E-stop if the operator is still in the light curtain.” This would allow an operator to load parts or perform other functions without shutting down operation while also not compromising safety.

A more complex example is the notion of allowing an inherently dangerous process to continue at a so-called “safe speed.” In this case, you’re counting on the operator (or more likely the maintenance technician) to be aware of and avoid the danger, owing to the slower speed. The system will not prevent injury if the human deliberately acts stupidly. The goal is to provide safety while also adding to productivity.

Other Implementation Issues

Beyond safety systems inherent in the equipment, using that equipment in combination with other gear and personnel increases risk as well. Nelson Shea said robots, especially cobots, are now “used where end users previously did not use any robots and might not have had the experience in implementing automation in risk assessments. The very first risk assessment is fraught with the greatest anxiety.”

Although the robot itself may have excellent safety functions, the robot maker generally does not know how its robot is being used, or even what end effector it will have. (Most robots have safety functions that meet PLd with either a category 2 or 3 architecture, enabling integration with safety devices and other machines.) That’s why it’s advisable to use a good integrator.

Happily, it’s easy to identify one, because as Campbell explained, “the Robotics Industry Association has an integrator certification program and to become certified, [an integrator] must pass a rather rigorous audit, which includes knowledge and application of the safety standards.” On the other hand, said Campbell, there are well-understood safety protocols and risk assessment tools for robots, so educating the new user is not difficult. And Nelson Shea said “once somebody goes through a risk assessment, the next one takes a quarter of the time, and the next one perhaps less.” She added that new-generation robots are much easier to operate then those of years past.

In addition to the change to robots, any change to the working environment brings new risks and hazards, according to John Dony, director of the Campbell Institute of the National Safety Council, Itasca, Illinois. “The single biggest thing for employers to consider is appropriate risk analysis and change management procedures when introducing a new piece of equipment, operating procedure or other change,” he said. Dony also noted that involving the workforce directly in these activities—as they are the closest to the risk—is a best practice and, additionally, a great way to engage workers.

John Hindman, director of learning and performance improvement at manufacturing training provider Tooling U-SME, Cleveland, agreed, saying “health and safety must definitely be partnered with both engineering and manufacturing to make sure that there’s proper hazard identification as these installations go into place. Developing good practices for working within these components should become part of standard work instructions, and part of the training for someone to be qualified to work with these components.”

Campbell added that when it comes to automation, the first step is gaining a good understanding of the manual process. “If you don’t understand the manual process, the probability of a successful implementation of an automatic process is about nil. So, understand what your skilled operators are doing. And, by the way, that is probably going to be slightly different than what your manufacturing engineering department thinks they’re doing!”

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The required Performance Level for maintenance safety systems is generally lower than other safety systems due to the expectation that the work will be performed relatively infrequently by expert technicians.

Campbell’s approach is to focus on fundamentals like payload, sequence of operations, cycle time, required precision, and the work envelope. He then specifies a system with ample headroom over the presumed requirements, because otherwise “you don’t leave yourself any room for a surprise. Don’t accept a project that requires the robot to operate at greater than 70 percent of its top speed. Don’t accept a project that requires the robot to operate at greater than 70 percent of its maximum work envelope. The same goes for precision. These are ‘keep-yourself-out-of-trouble recommendations’ that have proven to be helpful over the years.”

Once you’ve defined the application, said Nelson Shea, “what you need to do from a safety standpoint is think about how everything will be laid out.” She believes it is possible to reduce or eliminate about one-third of all hazardous situations simply by placing the equipment based on understanding where people might have to be stationed.

“You want to make sure that for any interaction a person has with the automation, their path to that interaction point, their activity while at it, and their path away are all the paths and interactions that are easy for them. Then they will always do it that way,” she explained. If designed to be easy, it is safeguarded so that the person will be safe. “But if there is a complex route to get there, forcing the person to do some odd body position in order to do what they need to do, they’re going to alter it, and then in altering it they may expose themselves to hazard,” she said.

Nelson Shea stressed the importance of a dialogue with the operator about fundamentals like where they get the part, whether or not they inspect it and where, whether they need certain tools and if the tools must be carried or can be pre-positioned. “Once the workflows are understood, it all falls into place just like a line of dominoes,” she said. “Then a task-based application risk assessment is performed, where guidance can be found in RIA TR R15.306.”

Harold Baro, senior vice president and general manager of SIMOS Insourcing Solutions, an Atlanta-based labor management firm, raised another concern for situations that require people to work in conjunction with automation: a language barrier. He said some systems use voice commands and their ability to handle different dialects or languages is not a trivial matter.

Nausley of Promess made the point that integrators also need to ensure—as much as possible—that each new piece of equipment functions similarly when it comes to safety. For example, the method for electrically locking out a station must carry across the entire line. “Every single operation on a line has to have the same procedures for safety. And the more complex equipment gets, the more difficult that [uniformity] becomes,” he said.

Staying on Track: Training and Audits

Naturally, training is a key part of ensuring safety in the workplace. Campbell said Universal Robots encourages its customers to get some hands-on experience with the robot before any installation, and it has 55 training centers worldwide to this end. It also has what Campbell described as a “fantastic, free, online academy where we have trained over 90,000 people. It really does leave people with the fundamentals of robot application and programming. That’s been very effective in getting people familiar with the technology and understanding how it’s going to work.”

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AR/VR technologies can be used to supplement or replace either hands-on or classroom safety training, improving the overall effectiveness of a safety program.

Tooling U-SME’s Hindman argued that “just because there are safety mechanisms in place with a lot of this automation, that doesn’t replace the need for the human to apply good safety awareness, and that takes training.” He pointed to the value of behavioral-based training programs and said that “where they’re driven from the floor, there’s participation from a great percentage of the workforce.”

But, added Hindman, the manufacturing community as a whole has not done a particularly good job of making sure that every worker takes responsibility for safety and keeps it in mind every day. Companies need to combat complacency by driving the safety message, possibly using automated systems, and creating a safety culture from the floor itself, he said.

Nelson Shea of Universal Robots observed that automation is undergoing a paradigm shift that counteracts this complacency. She explained that in contrast to years past, in which automation was introduced only for high-volume applications and people were literally locked out of virtually all interaction with the automaton (with the exception of maintenance by skilled technicians), today’s systems are used for all sorts of shorter run jobs. In these situations, “the operator is also the robot programmer, which is allowing these people to improve their skills and be more engaged in manufacturing within the company, because they’re not little drones tending the massive machine.”

As Campbell put it, “Traditional automation took an all-or-nothing approach. Either you automated the entire process or the project didn’t carry. But what we’re seeing now is a model of incremental automation. You don’t have to pick the million-dollar problem. Go pick the $75,000 problem, automate it, get your payback quickly, and then look for another $75,000 problem. We’re seeing that again and again.”

Hindman said behavioral-based training programs, as good as they are, tend to go stale fast, “especially when they’re forced from leadership.” But, said Dony of the National Safety Council, “new technologies are being used as channels to keep people engaged and address differing learning styles. Even taking the age of the worker out of the equation, everyone has a different learning style that appeals most to them.” He also noted that by using technologies such as micro-learning or augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) to supplement or replace either hands-on or classroom training, organizations can be more effective in teaching their employees.

Hindman agreed and said Tooling U-SME is developing VR platforms now. “Health and safety will be built into every one of these to allow people to make mistakes, because that’s the way people learn the best,” he said. “So, if we can create safe environments for workers to make those mistakes, that prevents them from doing it in real life and hurting themselves and hurting their coworkers.”

For example, they can use the wrong fire extinguisher in a virtual reality environment, make things worse, and see the whole plant burn down. It’s an effective technique “to get workers, especially younger workers who are not familiar with working in manufacturing environments, to adopt more awareness of what could go wrong,” said Hindman.

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Juan Rodriguez, director of automation with Crum Manufacturing, a Universal Robots certified systems integrator (right) consults with Craig Sivak, executive vice president and general manager, T&W Stamping.

He also pointed to newsfeed platforms like Beekeeper as a good way to push the safety message. “Companies that are struggling or don’t see any forward movement on safety programs are the ones that just keep things as they are, letting things get stale,” Hindman added. “You have to mix up the messaging, and even rotate new people into the programs.”

Wayne Chaneski, president of consultancy Smart Manufacturing Solutions, Edison, N.J., said increasing the likelihood of maintaining a safe environment requires safety audits “at least monthly and more frequently if they have the resources available.” He also argued that performance on such audits is the best metric of safety, in contrast to traditional measures like counting lost time accidents. “The audit document can best be developed by each company, based on their own operations, but if they are stuck, OSHA has a small business safety audit document they can use, and modify to suit their needs.”

Performance tracking can be based on any of the following: safety violations found, percent of audit questions that produce non-conformances, audits completed on-time, corrective actions implemented, and more. “This type of auditing is effective regardless of the industry or technologies employed,” Chaneski said, adding that safety audits are most effective when performed by a team from different departments. “This team should be made up of one or two core personnel and rotating members, perhaps on a quarterly basis. The team does the safety audit and reports the result. This way, you are not relying as much on self-reporting.”

Hindman echoed this concern, saying that workers generally won’t report a fellow employee doing something unsafe. Aside from the need to attend to their own tasks, “they’re not going to risk getting that individual into trouble, and creating a bad relationship,” he said.

For installation projects or ongoing construction, Dony said “the key factors are sound management of change and communication. These are environments that can change rapidly, and if a worker comes onto the job without understanding what may have transpired overnight or from shift to shift, the potential for harm goes up exponentially. Practices such as signed change or work orders, shift transition safety huddles, and strong permitting procedures are all helpful in controlling the risks.”

COVID-19 Creates Novel Safety Challenges for Manufacturers

Other than “some high-level policies for things like measles” that directed you to call the local health department, industry hadn’t really planned for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which began in earnest in the U.S. in March, according to John Hindman of Tooling U-SME. But as John Dony of the National Safety Council put it, “We have learned a massive amount in the past six weeks [at the time of this writing] around managing infectious disease in the workplace, though we still have a long way to go.”

Some clear guidelines have emerged around physical distancing, disinfection and other practices, but broader questions remain about re-engineering our workplaces to be pandemic-proof in the future, as well as making it safe to return to in the near term. (Visit nsc.org/safer to learn more about the National Safety Council’s Safe Actions for Employee Returns [SAFER] task force to address these issues.)

Harold Baro of SIMOS Insourcing Solutions suggested “directing traffic properly so you don’t have traffic going two ways in particular aisles, keep people going the same direction so they can maintain social distancing, and spreading out the break time so you’re minimizing the number of people in break rooms.”

Joe Campbell of Universal Robots USA said his company has seen a lot of interest in how to build social distancing into the manufacturing floor on a permanent basis. “People are rethinking their processes and asking about the possibility of cobots taking over certain tasks where the available floor space doesn’t allow for sufficient distancing between operators,” he said.

Hindman pointed to greater flexibility regarding absences. “Typically, in manufacturing, if you don’t show up on the fourth day, you’re gone. Many companies are now being more lenient with those policies. Others are waiving short-term disability if someone does get sick.” It remains to be seen if these policies will carry on after this crisis has passed.

But Hindman holds out hope that the COVID-19 outbreak will at least foster a lasting attitude of both personal and social responsibility. “We now have almost everyone taking account of how they’re feeling each day, and whether or not they should be going into work, because they have concern for their coworkers. That type of attitude and accountability should apply to manufacturing workers when they see a spill on the floor as well. They should be worried about their coworkers. This is an opportunity for manufacturing to look again at behavioral-based safety and let everyone take accountability for the health and safety of all of their coworkers.” A profound and welcome change indeed.

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