Comment: Risky business – robots present new problems

Robots are increasingly able to mimic human traits such as dexterity, says Elson. Picture: Contributed.
Robots are increasingly able to mimic human traits such as dexterity, says Elson. Picture: Contributed.
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Technology is enabling manufacturers to improve how they make goods and move towards more personalised production.

However, the impact of these changes on workers’ health, safety and wellbeing is often not well understood – raising ­challenges for compliance with health and safety laws.

Robotics and automation, artificial intelligence, data analytics, 3D printing and enhanced connectivity through the ­‘internet of things’ (IoT) are among the technologies driving this fourth industrial revolution.

The combination of robotics with ­intelligent machine advances means that robots are increasingly able to mimic human traits such as dexterity and ­memory, enhancing the capability they offer in industries like manufacturing and delivering greater efficiency.

Market analyst IDC forecasts that global spending on the IoT will reach $772.5 billion in 2018 and surpass $1 trillion by 2020. Not surprisingly it is manufacturers who are leading the charge – offering the potential to enable businesses to respond more effectively to customer demands and ­provide real-time feedback on how ­equipment is working.

The manufacturing sector is also seeing developments in nanotechnology and the ability to work with tiny particles of materials – many nanomaterials can be found in everyday products such as electronics, foods and sun creams.

Technology, on the face of it, appears to have the potential to eliminate risk ­completely or to reduce it so far as is ­reasonably practicable for manufacturing businesses. In many cases, technology will be able to provide safer working environments.

Conversely, it may in some cases actually introduce new health and safety risks into manufacturing operations. Using robots to carry out functions that have been ­traditionally performed by humans can, for example, create complacency about risk.

Manufacturers should also be conscious of potential latent risk arising from the use of technology that is perhaps not understood because of an underlying failure of design and programming. Health and safety risks arise in the servicing or repair of technology being used in production.

There have been many cases resulting in enforcement action where operatives have sought to remove blockages in line equipment, or effect a running repair, that has resulted in serious injury or death. This still requires robust management of “people” and these are matters that manufacturers must consider as they look to technology to address safety risks.

There are other more pernicious risks on the horizon. Information technologies can leave people continually connected and over-engaged to work and lead to fatigue and exhaustion. The Health and Safety Executive has estimated that around 60 to 80 per cent of accidents are related to fatigue and poor judgement.

Worker wellbeing also needs consideration. It is far more likely that people and intelligent machines will increasingly become “colleagues” in the future. But one who can work without breaks, who is always “on”, and who isn’t going to share much “social” information, is a very different colleague and such a relationship could easily create stress and undermine wellbeing.

People at work derive important health benefits from its social nature and this will be an issue to address.

As specialist health and safety lawyers ­supporting manufacturers in the UK and beyond, we recognise that change can bring substantial benefits, but it may also change the nature of risks that need to be ­managed. While technology can provide many of the answers for manufacturers seeking to streamline and enhance operations, it does not mean that manufacturers should stop investing in people and keeping them safe.

Sean Elson, partner and health and safety ­specialist at legal firm Pinsent Masons.