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Harnessing Industry 4.0 technology to improve staff safety

15 February 2019

According to the International Labour Organisation, 151 workers have a work-related accident every 15 seconds. Manufacturers should place greater emphasis on the health and safety of their staff to reduce this figure and can invest in automation to help. Here Jonathan Wilkins, director of industrial automation parts supplier EU Automation, explores some technologies that can improve the safety of workers as Industry 4.0 becomes reality.  

Manufacturers must do more to prevent avoidable injuries caused by falls, overexertion or operating heavy machinery. These injuries can negatively impact the health and well-being of staff as well as slow productivity and increase operating costs.

A new standard for health and safety at work, ISO 45001, was published in 2018 to help business owners reduce the risk of workplace injuries. This standard provides a framework to assess and reduce risks while improving employee well-being, allowing manufacturers to proactively improve occupational health and safety performance.

Advances in Internet of Things (IoT) technology allows plant managers to understand more about the safety of staff. Workers and employers can use these emerging technologies to better monitor their health while managing risks in their environment.

The connected worker

Personal protective equipment (PPE) can connect with factory systems via the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to automate safety management. For example, wearable sensors can detect abnormal worker behaviour, such as entry into a restricted area, and alert management and the employee of the potential dangers.

The Daqri Smart Helmet uses augmented reality to improve safety and efficiency in industrial applications. The helmet is fitted with cameras and sensors to collect real-time information about the worker’s environment, such as valve readings, temperature and any possible hazards. The wearer can also display safety guidelines or instructions on the helmet’s screen to improve accuracy when carrying out maintenance and reduce avoidable mistakes.

As well as monitoring the environment, sensors in PPE can measure the wearer’s blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate to directly monitor their health. This is important for engineers that work in confined spaces, from a semiconductor plant to the wing of a Boeing 747.

Delegate to robots

Of the non-fatal injury reports that HSE received in 2016/2017, 22 per cent were caused by lifting and handling objects. Thankfully, many lifting and handling tasks can now be delegated to robots. Robots are suited to tasks that require repetitive, physical actions because they can work for 24 hours a day without tiring and can lift heavier objects than humans, without injury being a concern. 

As employees and robots work more closely together, manufacturers must find robots that do not require cages or light curtains. Collaborative robots (cobots) are designed with human safety in mind because they have no sharp corners, exposed motors or pinch points. Cobots also have sensitive force monitoring devices to ensure the robot moves at a safe speed around humans and will stop if a worker gets too close.

Bringing it all together

Cloud-based software allows manufacturers to integrate all safety technologies into one platform that can be easily managed and optimised. 

Honeywell used the connected worker concept to develop its safety software. The platform incorporates headsets that deliver automated voice instructions so that workers can keep their hands free. It also has asset management functionalities to ensure that all safety-centred PPE is functioning correctly.

Manufacturers can input a range of information into Honeywell’s Safety Suite software to consolidate safety management, such as recordings from IoT enabled PPE, results of inspections and safety or training records. Manufacturers then have a comprehensive view of safety and compliance across the facility, which helps them understand the actions they must take to improve safety.

Plant managers must do more to reduce non-fatal injuries in their facility. As IoT technology advances to improve productivity, manufacturers can also harness technologies such as digital PPE, robots and cloud-based safety software to keep staff safe.

About the author

Jonathan Wilkins is the marketing director of industrial automation components supplier, EU Automation and is a prolific writer on Industry 4.0 in the industrial automation sector. A professional brand advocate and commercial marketing strategist, Jon has been part of the EU Automation team since its beginnings in 2009.

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