Date Posted 5/9/23, 10:38 AM

The days of traditional factories are long gone. Today, we are living in the age of smart factories that use innovative technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics. 

Some of the common robots in warehouses and distribution centers include Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), automated guided vehicles (AGVs), and collaborative robots (cobots). These robots help in moving, storing, picking, packing, palletizing, sorting, and loading goods with little to no human intervention. In addition, they can also interact with humans and other machines. 

Improved efficiency, productivity, safety, and quality are some benefits offered by robotics in smart factories, warehouses, and distribution centers. The international industrial robotics market was valued at nearly $24 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach about $43 billion by 2028.

While the benefits of implementing robotics in an industrial environment are plenty, it is also critical to understand that robots, too, pose some risks and challenges. Therefore, businesses using robots in their work environments must comply with safety standards and regulations. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is one such regulatory body that outlines specific rules and standards that businesses in the US must follow when implementing robotics in their workplaces.

Let's find out what these standards are and how they apply to robotics.

What are OSHA Standards?

OSHA enforces a list of standards, rules, and requirements to reduce risks to health and safety in the workplace in the United States. OSHA also urges companies to provide training, education, and guidance to their workers to maintain safe and healthy working environments. OSHA standards and regulations are mentioned in Part 1910 of Title 29 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). 

OSHA Standards and Robotics

OSHA standards are formulated into five categories: General Industry, Maritime, Construction, Agriculture, and Federal Employee Programs. 

OSHA does not have a specific standard for industrial robotics. But, the general duty clause of OSHA (Section 5a1 of the OSH Act) states that companies must create a work environment that is free from risks that may cause physical harm or even death to their workers. This clause is applicable to any known health or safety hazard which is not specified in any OSHA standard. 

There are some general OSHA and national consensus standards that may apply to industrial robotics. Some of these standards are:

Machinery and Machine Guarding: This subpart of OSHA General Industry Standards (29 CFR 1910 Subpart O) covers general safety requirements for all machines, including robots.

Electrical: Subpart S of OSHA standard specified in the Title 29 CFR 1910 covers electrical safety requirements for work practices and equipment. It is also applicable to electrical equipment like robots. Another OSHA standard stipulated in Title 29 CFR 1910.333 covers work practices for electrical equipment and installations in industrial facilities.

General Environmental Controls: Subpart J of OSHA standard in Title 29 CFR 1910 covers procedures like lockout/tagout (LOTO) for controlling hazardous energy sources. If hazardous energy sources like electricity, mechanical energy, hydraulics, pneumatics, chemical and thermal energy are not put off or controlled during the maintenance of industrial equipment, they may cause harm to workers.  Robotics is associated with almost every hazardous energy source. Therefore, this OSHA standard is applicable to industrial robotics. 

Industrial Robots and Robot Systems - Safety Requirements: This standard is based on the standards and technical reports developed by Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and approved by American National Standards Institute (ANSI). It provides safety requirements for the manufacture, remanufacture, rebuild, and integration or installation of industrial robots. 

This national consensus standard is stipulated in the section ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012. It also covers cobot safety in section RIA TR R15.606.

Companies must also consider following a few best practices for the safety and health of robotics and workers in addition to complying with OSHA and national consensus standards. Three of the best practices are given below. 

  • Consider robots for physically intensive tasks because those tasks can bring harmful effects on the health of workers and greater risks for accidents at work. 

  • Use robots that have powerful sensors that can easily detect humans or other machines in their vicinity.

  • Humans make more mistakes when doing repetitive and monotonous tasks. Therefore, use robots for these tasks to minimize human errors and accidents. 

Companies must understand the different types and applications of robotics technology before adopting it. They should also be ready to face challenges and identify opportunities when they integrate robotics technology with their existing systems and processes.

Robotics also demands careful planning and execution to ensure worker safety and health. By following OSHA standards and best practices, warehouse businesses or distribution centers can create a safe and productive work environment for both humans and robots.