NIOSH Presents: An Occupational Safety and Health Perspective on Robotics Applications in the Workplace

Posted on by Hongwei Hsiao, PhD; HeeSun Choi, PhD, John Sammarco, PhD; Scott Earnest, PhD, PE, CSP; Dawn Castillo, MPH; and Gene Hill

On October 12, 2017, three researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) gave a panel presentation at the National Robot Safety Conference on robotics applications in the workplace and worker safety. The conference was hosted in Pittsburgh, PA by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). Among the attendees were robotics engineers and robot system integrators, industry safety professionals, and other robot and automation manufacturers and professionals. The conference addressed key issues in industrial robot safety and provided an in-depth overview of industrial robot safety standards (e.g., ANSI/RIA R15.06 industrial robot safety standards). Presenters provided relevant technical reports, examples of industrial robot applications, and best practices on how to successfully incorporate safety into new and existing robotics projects in various workplaces. The conference provided an opportunity for NIOSH to present its research on working with robots and to hear from others working in this area. Summaries of the NIOSH presentations follow.

Robotics Applications in the Workplace: An Occupational Safety and Health Perspective

Hongwei Hsiao, Ph.D.

Industrial robots have been a significant part of the workplace for decades. Emerging industrial robotics technologies will bring both potential enhancements and concerns for worker safety and health. Robots can improve quality of life for workers by taking over tedious, dangerous, and dirty jobs that are fatiguing or less safe for humans to perform. However, concerns for worker safety and health also arise from the rapid technological advances and lack of experience working closely with new and emerging types of industrial robots, such as collaborative robots and mobile robots, in varied work settings. In particular, expansion of the robots designed to work in close cooperation with human workers may introduce new risks or exacerbate existing risks for some workplaces.

NIOSH recently established the Center for Occupational Robotics Research (CORR) to provide scientific leadership to guide the development and use of occupational robots that enhance worker safety, health and well-being. CORR will work in partnership with academic researchers, trade associations, robotics manufacturers, employers using robotics technology, labor organizations, and other federal agencies to:

  • monitor trends in injuries associated with robotics technologies;
  • evaluate robotics technologies as sources of, and interventions for, workplace injuries and illnesses;
  • establish risk profiles of robotic workplaces;
  • identify research needs and conduct studies to improve the safety, health, and well-being of humans working with robots and robotic technologies;
  • support the development and adoption of consensus safety standards; and
  • develop and communicate best practices, guidance and training for safe interactions between human workers and robots/robotics technology.

Application and Safety Concerns of Robotics Technology in the Mining Industry

John Sammarco, Ph.D.

NIOSH is interested in robot applications in the mining industry because the use of robots has the potential to greatly enhance mine workers’ safety and health. The mining industry has specialized operations and uniquely challenging work environments. Automated mining and robot technologies provide the potential to remove and isolate mine workers from hazardous work environments where health-related risk-exposures and machine-related injuries continue to occur. NIOSH researchers have been proactively addressing worker health and safety issues associated with robotic technologies by identifying future research efforts in these areas including sensors, automation, data analytics, system safety, human factors, and situational awareness. For instance, NIOSH continues to research proximity detection technologies for avoiding collisions between workers and mobile machinery. The research will help develop guidelines that the industry and regulatory agencies could use in the design and implementation of proximity detection technology for mobile robots in underground coal mines. Robotics technology also has an enormous potential for underground mine rescue efforts (see Figure 1). NIOSH initiated research to develop a robotic mine rescue support machine to improve the ability of a mine rescue team to respond to catastrophic events.

Figure 1. Mining Robot: A “snake” robotic is lowered down a borehole and relays vital information back to the surface to aide rescue efforts.

Robotics and Automation in the Construction Industry

Scott Earnest, Ph.D., PE, CSP

Figure 2. Robotic claw for bricklaying

The approximately ten million construction workers in the United States have elevated risks of fatal and non-fatal injuries as compared to workers in many other industries. Technological advances such as robotics and automation are beginning to migrate from factories and manufacturing facilities to building and construction sites to perform complex tasks. These and other approaches (such as prefabrication and additive manufacturing) have the potential to improve quality, productivity, timeliness, and safety in the construction industry. These advanced technologies are well-suited for construction where significant material handling and challenging working conditions are common. Robots can take on the handling of heavy loads; performing dirty, dangerous, or repetitive work; and working at elevation, in hard to reach places, and on tasks requiring difficult work postures. Robots are particularly well suited for work on civil infrastructure and home building activities such as bricklaying (see Figure 2). Alternatively, unanticipated hazards and consequences associated with the use of robots may be particularly significant because of the characteristics of traditional construction projects: ever-changing work environments, the need for multiple skilled craftsmen working on a project, multiple employers sharing a common worksite, and the interactions among many pieces of automated equipment. Further research and development is warranted for protocols, guidance, and best practices for the many robotics systems that are starting to become commercially available for construction applications.

Summary and Questions for Readers

The National Robot Safety Conference provided a terrific opportunity for NIOSH to present its perspective and discuss its interests in occupational robotics safety with those who are developing and using robots in the workplace. NIOSH is very interested in hearing from stakeholders as it expands work in this area through the new Center for Occupational Robotics Research. We ask readers to share their thoughts and perspectives, including providing input on the following questions:

  • Has your workplace introduced robotics technologies into your work processes, and what steps were taken to ensure worker safety and health?
  • What challenges have you encountered in integrating robots into your existing workforce?
  • What types of research do you think should be prioritized to advance the safety of humans working with robots?


Hongwei Hsiao, PhD, is the Branch Chief for the Protective Technology Branch in NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research.

HeeSun Choi, PhD, is an Associate Service Fellow with the Protective Technology Branch, Division of Safety Research.

John Sammarco, PhD, is a Principal Research Engineer for the NIOSH Office of Mine Safety and Health Research

Scott Earnest, PhD, PE, CSP, is the Deputy Director for the NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health, Coordinator for the Construction Sector.

Dawn Castillo, MPH, is the Director of the NIOSH Division of Safety Research.

Gene Hill is the Program Operations Assistant for the Protective Technology Branch in NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research.


See related blogs:

A Robot May Not Injure a Worker: Working safely with robots

Exoskeletons in Construction: Will they reduce or create hazards?

Can Drones Make Construction Safer?

Posted on by Hongwei Hsiao, PhD; HeeSun Choi, PhD, John Sammarco, PhD; Scott Earnest, PhD, PE, CSP; Dawn Castillo, MPH; and Gene Hill

2 comments on “NIOSH Presents: An Occupational Safety and Health Perspective on Robotics Applications in the Workplace”

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    Nice article on Robotics. I must add now the role of Artificial Intelligence is playing a great role to move up the robotics in next level of advancement.

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