Although robotic welders are one of the most expensive pieces of equipment on a plant floor, welder manufacturers may not provide the safeguarding needed for compliance with Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards. This represents a challenge as well as a danger for any manufacturer deploying robotic welders.
ANSI, in particular, is the author of industry-specific safety standards as to how robotic welders are required to be safeguarded. ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012 is now harmonized with the International ISO 10218-1 & 2 standard for robot manufacturers and robotic system integrators. In addition, the American Welding Society (AWS) has created more than 350 standards for welding practices and procedures and safety standards for welding robot systems.
Compared with other robotic systems that have been in place in U.S. manufacturing since the 1960s, robotic welding is a relatively newer technology, having been introduced in the mid-1980s. Today, however, it is estimated that more than half of the robots in North American manufacturing are used in welding. Robotic arc welding alone now commands about 20% of all industrial robotic applications. Despite this surge in use, some robotic welder manufacturers continue to not include basic safeguarding devices as part of a new equipment package, nor are they required to do so in the United States. This places safeguarding responsibilities, as well as the legal liability should an accident occur because of the absence of safeguards, squarely on the shoulders of the end user.
The term “safeguarding” simply refers to protective measures for employees who operate or come into contact with dangerous moving machines in a manufacturing setting. Safeguarding devices will detect or prevent accidental or intentional access to a potential hazard. Safeguarding devices operate automatically to protect workers from hazards found at the point of machine operation, power transmission, and other places moving parts are found.
While the total number of workers injured each year has decreased significantly since 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed that first required safeguarding, experts say the rate of fatal and non-fatal worker injuries is still far too high. In 1970, there were about 38 worker deaths a day, compared to 13 a day in 2014.
Machine guarding violations are one of the top 10 industrial-environment violations cited by OSHA, ranking No. 8 in 2016. Unguarded hazardous machinery is a major source of amputations and other traumatic injuries. According to OSHA, nearly 5,000 workers in metal fabricating plants suffer nonfatal injuries annually in the United States. Besides being dangerous, a lack of machine safeguarding can be expensive. OSHA recently fined a steel tubing manufacturer $139,800 and placed it in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program for repeat and serious machine guarding violations found at its Ohio facility. In another instance, OSHA assigned a Jacksonville, FL, manufacturer $697,700 in penalties in connection with the death of a 32-year-old machine helper.
Robotics professionals are quick to point out that while industrial accidents involving robots do happen, they are infrequent. But again, they do happen – typically during nonroutine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment. Way back in 1979, the first recorded death by robot happened in a car factory where a worker collecting parts from a storage facility was hit and killed by a robotic arm. Fast-forward to June 2015, when a worker in a German Volkswagen factory was crushed to death when setting up an industrial robot. A month later, a similar type accident involving a robot occurred in India. Accident statistics maintained by OSHA identify 27 fatalities associated with robots from 1984 to 2013, while the total number of workplace fatalities in the United States in 2013 alone was 4,585.
In short, industrial accidents involving robotics are rare but are increasing as robots’ use proliferates across all manufacturing sectors. Also, the ability of a robot to move and act independently through advanced software and vision systems raises important safety questions, especially with the emerging trend of “co-bots” manufacturers are starting to install to work alongside workers on the production line.