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NIOSH to Research Health, Safety Implications of Occupational Robots
In October, NIOSH announced the launch of its new Center for Occupational Robotics Research, which is intended to assess the potential benefits and risks of robot workers and develop guidance for safe interactions between humans and robots. Advancements in sensing technology have led to the development of smarter, collaborative robots that work alongside, move among, or are worn by human workers, NIOSH notes in its press release. According to agency researchers, 61 robot-related workplace deaths occurred between 1992 and 2015. The center will monitor trends in injuries associated with both traditional and emerging robotics technologies such as wearable robotics or powered exoskeletons and remotely controlled or autonomous vehicles and drones.

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Advancements in sensing technology have led to smarter, collaborative robots that work alongside, move among, or are worn by human workers.
Other activities will include evaluating robotics technologies as sources of and interventions for workplace injuries and illnesses; establishing risk profiles of robotic workplaces; and supporting the development and adoption of consensus safety standards. The center will also conduct research to improve the safety, health, and wellbeing of humans working with robots and robotic technologies, and develop and communicate best practices, guidance, and training for safe interactions between human workers and robotics technology. The center’s research priorities include robot-related incident surveillance and hazard analyses, robot incident risk factors, and robot-related safety communications.
“Not only is this a new field for safety and health professionals, little government guidance or policy exists regarding the safe integration of robots into the workplace,” said NIOSH Director John Howard, MD. “NIOSH’s Center for Occupational Robotics Research will provide the scientific leadership needed to ensure human workers are protected.”
The new center’s first formal partnership, an alliance with OSHA and the Robotic Industries Association, was established to foster a technical exchange and information sharing among NIOSH researchers, OSHA staff, members of RIA, employers, and workers. The alliance will address mechanical, electrical, and other hazards, and how to control occupational exposures during operations that involve human interaction with robotic systems. Participants in the alliance will also work together to develop technical training, resources, and tools related to the operational hazards of traditional industrial robotics, abatement methods, and human-robot collaboration installations and systems, an emerging field. More information about the alliance is available on OSHA’s website.

Other partners working with NIOSH to advance robotics research and prevention strategies to protect workers include the National Institute of Standards and Technology; the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center; the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management; and Partnership on AI, an organization that seeks to study artificial intelligence technologies and form best practices.
NIOSH is already studying robotics technologies in mining that are intended to help keep workers safe on the job. Current projects include the development of a machine to support the safety of mine rescue teams that respond to catastrophic events and the study of sensor technologies related to automation and the removal of workers from hazards.
Learn more about the new center and NIOSH’s role in robotics on the agency’s website.
The Synergist previously published a feature article that explores the potential applications of human exoskeletons. The article, which appeared in the May 2016 issue, is available online in the digital Synergist.

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