Workers better protected under new standards

Updated robotic safety standards are set to protect workers in more ways than one.

Australian robotic safety standards are now said to be among the world’s best due to a recent upgrade which takes into account changing technology and practice.

Standards Australia recently delivered the update to ensure Australian standards are in line with advancing technology and tightening OHS laws.

SA4024.3301 covers the safety requirements for robots in an industrial environment and falls under the machinery safety category. In line with international requirements, the new standards are said to be open to little interpretation and instruct on safe design, installation and usage of industrial robots without impinging on technological advancements.

Ern Millard, Chairman of the Standards Australia Committee says standards are designed to define an outcome and therefore cannot impinge on advancing technology.

“This standard is a performance-based standard,” Millard said.

“It says how a particular safety design technique should perform and not how to design it. Once you’ve defined how something should work and how it should perform, it shouldn’t limit technological development.”

Last updated in 1987, the robotic and automation industry say the new look standards have been long overdue.

Senior Electrical Design Engineer at John Hart Robotics and Automation, Greg Frazer believes the update brings the safety standards into the 21st century.

“As technology changes, our levels of safety must change also. Robots are getting faster and smarter and the standard must move with them,” Frazer said.

As combined human and robot working environments become more common, the importance of reliable safety standards becomes crucial. According to the 2008-2009 Notified Fatalities Statistical Report by Safework Australia, 13 people from the manufacturing industry were killed in work-related accidents. While this does not pertain specifically to robot-related accidents, it does highlight the importance of worker knowledge when it comes to working with machinery.

Knowledge the key

Robot safety campaigner and CEO of Pilz Safe Automation, Frank Shrever believes a lack of education and knowledge among users and designers is at the heart of most robot-related injuries.

“The standard is not being taught anywhere, so the engineers and the electricians who are entering the industry, and are asked to provide the safe solutions, don’t know how to design something to be safe. The best way to combat it is to introduce machine safety design training.”

While he maintains knowledge and education is the key to safety, Shrever adds that technology is now developing in such a way that it can account for human error.

“A time when robots and people can work happily side by side is not too far away. It’s already been demonstrated that a robot can actually recognise through cameras that there is an object in its way and navigate its way around the object,” Shrever said.

Frazer disagrees; saying robot manufacturers and distributors are meeting the market demand for robot education and believes the real problem comes down to human error and worker complacency.

“A very high percentage of accidents are caused by operator interference. They see a robot doing the same thing day in and day out and all of a sudden, it’s not doing what it should be doing so they tap something or jump into the safety cell with the robot to fix it and that’s when the accident happens.”

Millard says the safety standards were written with the inevitability of human error in mind and accepts that humans need protection.

“Humans make mistakes, they are inquisitive and experimental and at times will believe they know what they are doing, rationalise a way and jump in the tiger’s cage with the tiger. When we design machines, we have to, as far as practicable, prevent the human from getting into the danger place,” he said.

Cost-cutting dangers

According to Frazer, the new standards are beginning to stifle the second-hand robot market which has flourished since last year’s economic downturn.

He has noticed an increase in companies buying second-hand robots at discounted prices from auctions without fully understanding their need or function only to discover that most older robots do not comply with the new standards.

“Companies are buying these second-hand robots then bringing them to people like us for help installing them but unfortunately they no longer comply – that’s half the reason why the original owners got rid of them.”

Simon Hales, Operations Manager at John Hart says manufacturers approach John Hart after purchasing a non-compliant second-hand robot from elsewhere, for installation. He says installing non-compliant robots is not only impractical and unsafe but also costly.

“We usually end up with a disappointed customer because they’ve bought something they thought was good value for money but when they do their homework, they find out maybe it wasn’t so good,” Hales said.