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What are the health and safety risks of wearable robotics in the workplace?

08 October 2018

Machines have been helping to make business processes more efficient since the Industrial Revolution, and there is an increasing number of robots entering a growing number of workplaces today. Thanks to advancements in technology, these include wearable robotics, which are worn by human workers to make carrying out certain tasks easier and safer. 

However, while wearable robotics bring significant health and safety benefits, they also bring new challenges.

Richard Powell from personal injury lawyers YouClaim discusses how wearable robotics are changing workplaces and the health and safety issues that need addressing.

The benefits of wearable robotics in the workplace

Robots are able to carry out tasks that sometimes can be dangerous for humans to perform, such as lifting or moving heavy objects, or working with hazardous substances. Wearable robotics can reduce the risk of injury, or aid the rehabilitation of workers who have been injured.

A Harvard University team suggested that wearable robots could save an employee’s energy while carrying a load. This study, which centred on an exosuit specific for leg joints, found a user’s energy expenditure was reduced due to the assistive force provided to the motion of the ankles when carrying a heavy load. Lead researcher Conor Walsh said: “In a test group of seven healthy wearers, we clearly saw that the more assistance provided to the ankle joints, the more energy the wearers could save with a maximum reduction of almost 23% compared to walking with the exosuit powered-off.”

This year saw the launch of a new wearable robotic exoskeleton to support manual activities carried out by factory workers. Automated systems developer Comau introduced the MATE Fit for Workers as a way to reduce shoulder muscle activity by up to 50%, meaning users could do the same manual tasks with reduced fatigue. The exoskeleton uses a passive spring-based mechanism, meaning there is no risk of battery or motor failure.

As well as supporting workers, wearable robotics can help with the rehabilitation of workers with long-term disabilities. Research conducted by insurers RSA suggests that exoskeletons could potentially reduce the cost of care by as much as 50% in the future. The company is currently trialling exoskeleton technology on a 50-year-old diagnosed with T7 paraplegia.

Wearable robotics can also help to address one of the main challenges of an ageing society; loss of mobility and physical ability. If robotics can help individuals carry out physical work until later in life, older people can avoid a sedentary lifestyle. 

The risks of wearable robots in the workplace

Due to the differences in levels of robotic development, it is not possible to provide uniform guidelines when it comes to security and risk management. In some applications, security and safety issues are being managed properly, but there are some robotic applications that may be less safe. This means risky and unsafe activities related to the use of wearable robots in the workplace still need to be identified.

At the moment, accidents caused by robots can be grouped into four categories:

1. Impact or collision accidents

A robot’s limbs that behave unexpectedly or due to a malfunction can result in contact accidents.

2. Crushing accidents
A robot may trap a worker’s body part between itself and other equipment, causing fractured or broken bones.

3. Accidents by mechanical parts
The breakdown of a robot, such as grip or power source failure, can result in injury to an employee.

4. Other accidents
Various accidents can be caused if a wearable robot has a power supply or pressurised fluid lines.

The effects of robotics on workers’ and managers’ motivation and wellbeing are also not widely known, so more study with be required into this potential impact on health and safety.

The law surrounding workplace robots

There are no specific rules set out relating to the use of robots in the workplace. However, health and safety law does require that employers take any reasonable practicable measures that will keep their employees safe at work. For organisations operating wearable robots, this could include providing clear instructions to employees on their use, limiting the behaviours of robots, defining when and how wearable robots should be used and ensuring they meet minimum machine safety standards.

Risk assessments should be updated to ensure they take into account the full range of potential hazards relating to wearable robots. Companies will also need to look at the skillsets of their employees, which will include people who understand robots and know what to do should something go wrong.

Liability for injuries caused by wearable robots

If an employee is injured as a result of their employer’s failure to take reasonable safety measures, the company concerned could face an employers’ liability claim, as well as regulatory action from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK and its equivalents in other countries.

Depending on the level of autonomy and self-learning, liability issues could become even more complex. Usually, when something goes wrong with machinery it can be traced back to a defect or incorrect operation, but faults with modern machines can stem from a number of different contributing factors. For example, an issue with a robot could arise from the machine, the hardware, the software or how it communicates.

To ensure that liability can be assigned to relevant parties, it is vital that employers have contracts in place with each supplier so when something goes wrong costs can be incurred as a result of any failures.

A draft EU report written in 2016 proposed the creation of an obligatory insurance scheme that would require manufacturers of wearable robots to take out insurance.

While the introduction of human enhancement technologies provides new benefits and possibilities to workplaces, it also raises new demands on health and safety management to monitor emerging risks, as well as new legal and ethical questions. It’s important that businesses planning to introduce or upgrade to robotics and automation in a workplace have a firm understanding of which legislation applies to them. They should also dedicate appropriate attention to carry out risk assessments and action plans to reduce hazards associated with robots.

About the author

Richard Powell is a personal injury specialist from YouClaim. The company, based in Manchester, has been providing legal advice to those who have been injured, no matter what the circumstances, for over 10 years.

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