[This article was written by Jon Muller.]
Until a coworker is injured on the job, we seldom think much about workplace safety, or the lack thereof. While the current COVID-19 dominates all the headlines, workplace injuries on the other hand is seldom talked about with any sense of urgency, despite the fact that at least 5,250 individuals in the US alone died from work related accidents in 2018.
The good news is, there are several strategies employers can use to mitigate the risk of work accidents. One approach that’s turned out to be very effective is adopting automation technology.
Here’s how specific companies are using automation to keep worksites safer than ever.
Collaborative Robots in the Automotive Industry
Volkswagen is a company revered not only for its innovative products but also its production techniques.
In their latest efforts to improve employee safety, the company has adopted collaborative robots to perform some of the repetitive tasks.
More specifically, Volkswagen uses UR5 robots from Universal Robots, which are 6-axis robotic arms, to slide glow plugs into the cylinder heads of motors. To achieve this, each robot lifts a massive 5-kg component.
Initially, workers were forced to lift and fit the glow plugs into the cylinders from a stooping posture. But since the adoption of the robots, employees can now work side by side with the robotic devices while maintaining upright, healthy postures.
As Jürgen Häfner (the project manager at Volkswagen’s Salzgitter plant) explains, integrating these robots into their production line has significantly reduced long-term burdens on workers.
Automatic Guided Vehicles in Warehouse Operations
Warehouse operations are also increasingly turning to automation and robotics to improve efficiency and reduce workplace injuries. Hellenic Bottling Company (HBC), one of Coca-Cola’s largest factories, is an excellent example of this, replacing manual labour as much as possible through the use of automatic guided vehicles.
Back in 2014, the manufacturing firm purchased 6 automated guided vehicles (AGV) that replaced 12 of their manually-operated forklifts.
An AGV is simply a wheeled cart that uses software to direct its movements, at times with the aid of lasers or magnetic strips. The main function of this cart is to transport items- usually heavy-weighted loads- in different ways. It can tow, elevate, push or use the good old-fashioned clamp-and-lift approach.
Coca-Cola and other companies that have embraced AGVs have seen considerable reductions in workplace injuries. Modern AGVs are fitted with cameras, lasers and other sensors, which enable them to operate safely around personnel and structures.
Conversely, traditional forklifts have very few built-in safety mechanisms. Plus, they depend solely on human input, which can be compromised in several ways. For instance, if the individual operating the forklift is tired or gets distracted, they can cause accidents.
Prefabricated Construction in the Construction Industry
Data compiled by the U.S.Department of Labor reveal that construction workers are among the most vulnerable groups of employees when it comes to work-related accidents. Thus, this is one sector where automation technology can really help to reduce cases of work accidents.
One approach that housing development companies are using to keep their workers safe is modular construction.
Also known as prefabricated construction, this is where a large portion of the construction process takes place off-site or in a factory-controlled environment rather than on-the-site. From the controlled setting, companies incorporate robotics and automation technologies to speed up the construction process.
A major benefit of modular construction is that it reduces the time that workers have to spend on the construction site. This means they’re less exposed to potentially hazardous situations such as slippery surfaces (that cause falls and slips) or getting struck by falling debris.
Modular construction also leads to less fatigue- a key factor for reducing the likelihood of sustaining work-related injuries. A modular crew can spend 20 to 30% less time building a structure than an on-site build crew.
Robot Companions In Fulfillment Centers
Work inside traditional fulfillment centers are long, repetitive, and stranounous, and as such are rife with health hazards.
With over 175 fulfillment centers worldwide, Amazon is on the forefront of using technology to reduce typical ergonomic hazards that plague this type of environment. In recent years, the company has made a ton of acquisitions in the field of “smart machines” to aid – not replace – humans working in fulfillment centers.
The most notable of these investments are a network of robots to create a much more efficient and safe work environment. Hardware and software together help assist human workers in everything from locating, lifting, to transporting packages.
Before the introduction of these robots, the staff had to walk up and down along the aisles, navigating carts. They would then lift and place products from the carts onto shelves. By the end of the day, the worker would have been on their feet for 10 or more hours.
Nowadays, Amazon uses robots to transport shelving units to a stower’s workstation. This worker then picks a product and places it in an empty slot within the shelving unit. Once the unit is full, the worker presses a button which prompts the robot to navigate the attached shelving unit to the workstation of a “picker”.
The greatest benefit of these automated delivery systems is that they handle the most mundane and physically demanding tasks. Employees are not as fatigued as they used to be, and this reduces the chances of making errors and sustaining injuries on the job.
There are numerous perks of using automation technology in the workplace. These include increased productivity, more efficient use of materials and better product quality. Another reason why you should embrace automation is because it improves workplace safety.
Automated systems are designed to take on the most repetitive and demanding tasks. In some cases, the automation technology eliminates the need for human input. This, in turn, safeguards employees against hazards.
Another advantage of automation is that it reduces the number of hours an individual has to work. This helps to reduce employee fatigue, which is a major cause of work-related injuries.
Perhaps the best thing about automation technology is that it can be applied to multiple industries. Housing development firms can adopt a modular approach to construction. Similarly, food and beverage companies can use automated guided vehicles to transport products.
Jon Muller is the founder of Ergonomic Trends where he blogs about ergonomics, office productivity, and ways to stay healthy at the office. During his spare time he loves walking his dog and hiking with his friends and family.