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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Putting Safety First When Working With Robots

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An increasing number of jobs once performed by humans are now performed by robots.

With robotics playing such a pivotal role in the future of manufacturing, keeping humans safe is gaining the attention of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), especially in light of recent events in which workers have been crushed by robots.

In July 2015, a journeyman maintenance technician was inspecting machinery at an automotive stamping facility in Iona, Michigan, when she became trapped by robotic machinery and died at the scene. The cause of death was severe head trauma.

The incident occurred when a robot from one cell entered the cell in which the woman was working. The robot was attempting to place a hitch assembly in a fixture already loaded with a hitch assembly, when it hit and crushed the woman’s head. She was found later when other employees noticed that certain operations in the cell were not working properly. By the time they arrived, the woman was non-responsive. She was pronounced dead at the scene by first responders.

An investigation by the Michigan Occupational Safety & Health Administration (MIOSHA) revealed that the cell automation system failed to meet numerous OSHA and MIOSHA laws and regulations, including those pertaining to risk assessment and the control of hazardous energy. The plant has also been cited for failing to utilize a lockout after a worker enters a robotic cell.

The victim’s husband recently filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the robot and the companies that helped with installation and maintenance. According to the complaint, the robot “should have never attempted to load a hitch assembly within a fixture that was already loaded with a hitch assembly.” The lawsuit also says that the automation system in the work area did not adhere to numerous safety regulations, and safety doors meant to prevent robot movement were not effective. The defendants failed to properly design, manufacture and/or test their products, including the robots, robot controllers, robot tooling, part fixtures, welding process equipment and/or safety devices, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiff seeks damages greater than $75,000 for wrongful death and product liability.

Based on this case and other similar workplace incidents involving industrial robots, increased standards and additional safety measures for worker interactions with industrial robots are necessary. Safety equipment and barriers are an essential part of any robotic system or work cell to ensure the safety of workers while a robot is in operation. Extensive safety training should be provided for all employees who may have contact with the robots. They must know all aspects of the robot, including the robot’s range of motion and the locations of emergency stop buttons and power sources. Training should also include procedures for freeing a co-worker who becomes caught.

No life is worth a production goal or cutting corners when it comes to safety. Companies cannot scrimp on safety. History has shown that safer working conditions and preventable accidents is money well spent.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.

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