The Role of Robotics in the Future of WorkPosted on by
NIOSH established the Future of Work Initiative in response to rapid changes in the workplace, work, and workforce. The Initiative seeks to prompt research and practical approaches to address future occupational safety and health concerns. Increased use and rapid technologic advances in robotics fits within the sphere of changes in how work will increasingly be done.
The rapid increase in use, and new types of robots, has resulted in numerous knowledge gaps on how robotics technologies can best be used to benefit workers and ensure that their use does not contribute to worker harm. Technology advancements and use of robots are not waiting for these research questions to be answered. While researchers work to fill knowledge gaps, it is encouraged that 1) robotics manufacturers and integrators follow Prevention through Design principles; 2) consensus standards groups and others develop best practices; and 3) employers and workers follow these best practices.
Robots are not new to the workplace and have been used for decades in manufacturing. However, the last decade has seen tremendous advances in robotics technology and application in work settings that are less controlled than manufacturing, such as agriculture, construction, and mining, as well as in settings where robots can come into contact with the public, such as in healthcare, retail, and transportation. Control technologies for traditional industrial robots that keep workers physically away from operating robots using cages and other engineering controls are obsolete for the new types of robots that by design are intended to work with, around, and even be worn by workers. Risk assessment methods and control strategies must be developed and tested for these new types of robots. On Wednesday, June 22 (2-3pm ET), 2022, NIOSH will host a free webinar: The Role of Robotics in the Future of Work (more details below).
NIOSH established the Center for Occupational Robotics Research (Robotics Center) to provide scientific leadership to guide the development and use of occupational robots that enhance worker safety, health, and well-being. The Robotics Center defines robots broadly and addresses traditional industrial robots, collaborative robots, co-existing or mobile robots, wearable robots or powered exoskeletons, remotely controlled or autonomous vehicles, and future robots that will have increased autonomy using advanced artificial intelligence.
Increased use of robotics is a two-sided coin for worker safety, health, and well-being. On one side, the potential to improve worker safety results from robots—rather than humans—doing dangerous work, such as work at heights, in confined spaces, with infectious patients and disinfection, and work that stresses the human body. On the other side are concerns that robots could 1) physically injure workers through unanticipated contact; 2) distract workers from hazards; and 3) mentally stress workers due to their lack of understanding and trust in the robot’s capabilities or concerns about job displacement.
NIOSH identified broad occupational robotics research needs in its Strategic Plan that guides its scientists and extramural (external) researchers who apply for research funding from NIOSH and partners. Robotics related research needs are included in: Goal 3, Reduce immune, infectious and dermal disease; Goal 4, Reduce occupational musculoskeletal disorders; Goal 6, Improve workplace safety to reduce traumatic injuries; and Goal 7, Promote safe and healthy workplace design and well-being. Research goals are included for each of the four broad types of research conducted by NIOSH:
- Surveillance: methods and techniques for systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data on injuries associated with robots.
- Basic/etiologic: Risk factors contributing to robot-related injuries, such as the human robot interface.
- Intervention: Evaluating robotics technologies as interventions to improve worker safety, and evaluation of control technologies to improve worker safety around robots.
- Translation: Evaluating aids and barriers to translating occupational robotics research findings into practice.
More detailed research needs support these research goals and can be found on the Robotics Center Research Webpage and in The NIOSH Future of Work Initiative Research Agenda.
NIOSH is building a research portfolio to address occupational robotics research needs. This includes research conducted by NIOSH scientists and funding of research by external scientists:
- State Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) programs that have investigated worker deaths and serious injuries associated with robotics technology and recommended prevention practices
- Researcher Initiated Grants
- Research at, and supported by, Education & Research Centers, National Construction Center (CPWR), and Centers for Agricultural Safety and Health
- NIOSH Mining Program Contracts
- Partnering with the National Science Foundation to fund extramural occupational robotics safety and health research.
Descriptions of NIOSH supported research conducted by NIOSH and external scientists are on the Robotics Center Research Webpage. The research addresses multiple robotics technologies (i.e., collaborative robots, mobile robots, exoskeletons, autonomous ground vehicles and machines, and drones). Further, the portfolio includes robotics applications in multiple industries (i.e., agriculture, construction, mining, and healthcare), and activities range from pilot projects and small studies to larger scale projects. Much of this research is in process and some has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Related scientific articles and reports are available on the Robotics Center Publication Page.
In addition to working to fill occupational robotics research needs, NIOSH is working with partners to develop best practices. Through an Occupational Safety and Health Administration Alliance that includes the Association for Advancing Automation and NIOSH, the OSHA Technical Manual chapter, titled Industrial Robot Systems and Industrial Robot System Safety was recently updated with new guidance for assessing and working safely with robotic systems. NIOSH researchers participate on several robotics related consensus standards committees, including ISO/TC 299- Robotics, ANSI/RIA R15.06- Industrial Robots and Robot System Safety, ANSI/R15.08- Industrial Mobile Robot Safety, and ASTM F48- Exoskeletons and Exosuits. NIOSH researchers also contributed to consensus documents that might lead to future standards: ANSI/ASSP/NSC Z15.3- Safety Management of Partially and Fully Automated Vehicles (Technical Report) and ANSI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Standardization Collaborative – UASSC. Occupational safety researchers and practitioners are similarly encouraged to participate in standards activities to bring their expertise to bear on these documents which are often used as, or lead to, best practices.
In summary, research and work to develop best practices for working safely with robots are needed to position the occupational safety and health community to proactively address the proliferation of robotics technologies that are a significant component of the future of work.
Would you like to learn more about the occupational safety and health implications of robotics? Join us on Wednesday, June 22, from 2:00-3:00 pm ET for a free webinar: The Role of Robotics in the Future of Work, featuring Ms. Dawn Castillo, Director of the Division of Safety Research at CDC/NIOSH and Dr. Chukwuma (Chuma) Nnaji, Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering at The University of Alabama. Register here to attend this webinar presented by the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative.
Missed previous webinars in the series? You can watch them here.
As NIOSH works to build an occupational robotics research portfolio and contribute to best practices that will improve worker safety now and in the future, we are interested in your experiences and perspectives. What trends are you seeing with new robotics technologies that NIOSH research should aim to address? What aspects of occupational robotics do you think are especially important to address through best practices and occupational safety and health guidance?
Dawn N. Castillo, MPH is the Director of the NIOSH Division of Safety Research and Manager of the NIOSH Center for Occupational Robotics Research.
Jacob L. Carr, PhD is the Team Leader for the Mining Technologies Team in the NIOSH Pittsburgh Mining Research Center and Coordinator of the NIOSH Center for Occupational Robotics Research.
W. Allen Robison, PhD is the Director of the NIOSH Office of Extramural Programs.