The Future is Now: Automation and Health and Safety
To err is human, or so the saying goes. But, is it true? The advent of automation has brought automation as a safety control to the attention of many health and safety managers. How does automation impact health and safety? Many health and safety accidents are the result of human error. Does automation reduce the likelihood of accidents by removing the human element? Or, does the rise of the machines create more hazards? Below, we examine some potential health and safety implications, such as:
- Automated inspections, forms, and alerts
- Preventative maintenance
- Self-driving technology
Automated Inspections, Forms, and Alerts
When it comes to managing a health and safety program, there are a lot of moving parts. However, any health and safety manager will tell you: a large part is comprised of completing inspections and filling out the paperwork. Any hazards noted in the inspection require control and follow-up. These functions are largely administrative, and program managers cite the manual and human elements of program management elements as a primary health and safety concern.
Automation of inspections, forms, and follow-up are changing the way that health and safety is being managed. Instead of relying on slow pen and paper methods of inspection, automation and digital checklists make it easier for inspectors to focus on what matters: hazard recognition. As well, any inspections completed digitally that don’t pass or meet standards can automatically generate alerts to those responsible for controlling hazards. Further, automated inspection reports can be atomically sent to the JHSC, managers, and CEOs. File management can easily be automated.
Automation of inspections, forms, and alerts ensures that the human element of administration doesn’t cause errors. The possibility of forgetting about an identified hazard, misplacing the report, or missing a hazard altogether are largely eliminated through the automation of inspections, forms, and alerts.
Consider the dash of your car. When the check engine light comes on, it’s your car’s computing system alerting you to a potential problem. The goal of such technology is to notify drivers that maintenance is required before a catastrophic accident occurs. The same technology can be applied to workplaces. Additionally, using data discussed above may reveal patterns that can be used to create a preventative maintenance schedule that aims to inspect and maintain equipment before it malfunctions and possibly results in an accident or injury. Fixing issues before they become problems is a proactive approach to health and safety in the workplace.
Sure, we’ve all heard of robots, but what about “co-bots”? Co-bots are robots designed to be used in collaboration with humans to provide additional support to human work processes. The jury is still out on how co-bots impact health and safety. Proponents suggest that automating basic work processes and functions drastically reduces the risk of accidents or injuries—especially ergonomic injuries. But, opponents argue that co-bots create hazards within themselves. Pinch points and moving parts create entrapment hazards, and faulty wiring or other malfunctions create fire hazards. Like any machine that requires an energy source, servicing co-bots will require human workers to follow proper lockout procedures. Failure to do so could result in injury or death.
Co-botics is a relatively new aspect of automation in the workplace. It’s too early to determine their true potential for safety improvements; however, co-bots have already drastically improved manufacturing processes and productivity. Co-bots continue to function as support mechanisms for human processes. So, safety measures will need to increase with the same momentum.
The Rise of the Robots
Unlike co-bots, robots do not rely on human collaboration. Don’t think of Rosie from the Jetsons; any automated machine that completes work processes once completed by humans is a robot. It doesn’t need to look like a toy to be one. Think of automotive factories, and the mechanical arms that move items on assembly lines, or complete functions such as soldering parts, or screwing pieces together. By removing the human factor, hazards are effectively controlled through elimination. However, there are ethical concerns about using robots to complete jobs once held by humans. As well, although we are on the precipice of artificial intelligence research, robots cannot yet think, making them terrible problem solvers when something goes amiss on the assembly line. For those reasons, robots may decrease the instance of injury and accidents in the workplace, but they are less than ideal replacements for entire work processes.
The number one cause of workplace fatalities is vehicular accidents. One aspect of automation aimed at preventing vehicular fatalities is the invention of self-driving vehicles, and vehicles equipped with other technologies designed to prevent collisions, such as pedestrian alerts, cyclist recognition, lane departure technology, etc. Self-driving vehicles are designed to accommodate for conditions that include potential collision hazards. Those sophisticated alerts are built on the same principles as other AI inventions, allowing for safer workplace driving and a drastic reduction in accidents.
Looking Ahead: The Future is Now
There are many exciting new advances being made every day aimed at increasing the safety of workers. Automation certainly increases workplace safety, but not at the cost of the human element. Automation is a support mechanism, but human interaction, observation, and input is currently required in order to effectively manage an active health and safety program. Whether or not health and safety can be fully automated in the future remains to be seen. If the future is now, it seems we won’t have to wait long to see what it holds!
Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator
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