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Robots preventing and causing workplace injuries

Last year, a major car company was fined over $12,000 after an auto-plant robot severely injured a human worker. While robots promise to reduce injuries in humans doing dangerous jobs, there’s also a growing concern about protecting humans from the robots themselves.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is taking major steps to improve its understanding of human-robot interactions and their potential for catastrophic injury to humans and for delivering them from dangerous working conditions.

Cargill testing cattle-herding robots

Jobs involving working with cattle are dangerous, with cattle-related injuries affecting 1,360 American workers in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In part due to these dangers, dairies and feedlots are increasingly adopting robotics to handle jobs that are both dangerous and viable for the technology.

Minnesota-based Cargill, for example, is testing a remote-controlled cattle herder based on a Russian robot designed for human security applications. Tested at plants in Nebraska and Pennsylvania so far, the metal-armored prototype can whistle at the cattle much like a human. For older dairy cows, gentler puffs of air guide the cattle.

Robot-human injuries on the rise

To help protect humans from being injured by robots, OSHA issued its first “Guidelines for Robotics Safety” back in 1987. Since then, at least 61 American workers were killed in robot-related workplace accidents between 1992 and 2015.

Recently, the agency decided its regulations needed a major overhaul to keep them relevent to today’s challenges. It has now joined forces with a robotics industry group and the federal agency responsible for research on work-related injury and illness (NIOSH).

Their collaboration has resulted in the new Center for Occupational Robotics Research to study both the potential benefits and risks of robots in the workplace and to establish guidelines that would better protect their human coworkers.

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