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How to Protect Workers in the Age of Automation

March 18, 2020
As automation increases, concerns about not only its permanence but what is being done to protect workers in these new environments have also arisen.

The rise of automation has long been a topic of interest for American workers, and concerns about automation’s potential to replace traditional labor have evolved in conjunction with technology’s rapid evolution. The U.S. labor market is experiencing a decline in middle-skill occupations, such as manufacturing and production jobs, and an increase in both high and low-skill jobs, a spectrum bookended by managerial positions and personal care jobs. This “job polarization” was caused in part by the rise of automation in manufacturing, and it has left many manual laborers wondering what their future may hold.

As automation increases, concerns about not only its permanence but what is being done to protect workers in these new environments have also arisen. How do we quantify the physical risk to workers in an ever-changing technological landscape, especially if the new technology is largely autonomous? This is where data collection becomes vital to companies. By using technology to collect and categorize data, companies can more accurately assess the risk of injury when performing a task in an autonomous environment. The compiled data is then used to inform workers about potential unforeseen safety hazards and protect them while working alongside their robotic colleagues.

Many self-identified blue-collar workers still worry that automation will come to overrun the workforce sooner rather than later no matter the steps we take to improve safety. And while it is true that automation is likely here to stay, these workers, people we call Industrial Athletes, have a lot less to fear from it than they may think.

Complete automation is unrealistic

Cultural opinion aside, the current state of automation technology is nascent and has notably limited capabilities. For example, it takes a lot of manpower to unload, sort, track, and store the thousands of packages that pass through a facility every day, and the current maturity of Robotics Process Automation (RPA) is not fully equipped to accurately sort such a substantial volume and variety of packages. Additionally, such robots are large and clunky, and many facilities that are built for people would need to be retro-fitted to sustain them. This is a costly procedure, as space and flexibility are usually limited, but if you do decide to make a drastic redesign of your company’s space or process, you must ensure that the receiving end of the process has been translated and is compatible. Robotic cells have a complicated installation process, as they must be designed, assembled with all of their end of arm tools and sensors, and programmed to integrate smoothly on the production line. Safeguard features such as protective fencing are also often installed alongside the new equipment depending on the robot’s function. Even if the robotic cell is able to integrate easily, they often require extensive care and maintenance to manage their functionality. Many companies find that the formula for the cost-benefit of automation and robotics does not quite work for them, and their uncertain scalability aspect only increases hesitancy about their overall usefulness. Widespread automation is possible, but its present capabilities are far too limited to match up to public perception.

Safety is (still) a number one priority

Automation’s limited capabilities and proximity to humans create a breeding ground for injury, which is why approaching safety with modern solutions is still an important consideration, specifically where the human is most at risk of injury and there are limitations on what can be done to improve job safety. Unless the work done by the automation is completely enclosed or safe-guarded, proximity-based interactions between robots and people are a daily occurrence.

Concerns about what new challenges may arise and how to quantify that risk when there is more automation, autonomous technology, and human interaction abound, but there is some historical precedent to suggest we are heading in the right direction. In theory, ATMs should have made the bank teller obsolete, but historical data suggests there may have been an increase in bank tellers over the years as a direct result of savings and efficiency gains. Though there is debate, the ATM certainly allowed bank tellers and banks to focus on performing more advanced functions, saving them time and money. In the case of industrial environments, there could be a large expansion of skilled workers related to the development, installation, maintenance, auditing and programming of these new technologies. It will require the investment and attention of existing organizations to prioritize and properly upskill our existing workforce. Ultimately, there will always be people involved in these industrial environments, which means there will always be a need to consider their safety.

It is difficult to conceive where autonomous technology may take us in the next few decades, but people will always be a part of the industrial workplace. As automation continues to evolve, safety concerns will evolve with it, and while we need to be cognizant of potential effects, this is no reason to shy away from where automation could take us. There may be different safety concerns than the ones we know today, but we are well-equipped to handle these changes. People will always be at the heart of industrial labor, and we will always be there to keep them safe.

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