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10 tactics for safely introducing robotic material handling systems

10 tactics for safely introducing robotic material handling systems

Robotic material handling systems may set new performance standards for speed, precision and quality. They can also help prevent repetitive strain and sprain injuries that might occur if the work were still being done manually. But this doesn't mean they’re hazard free, says Robert Vomiero, Specialized Services Lead with WSPS.

These material handling systems rely on devices and robots to move, lift, pull, push, store, and retrieve products. Here's an example: a robot palletizer system that transfers boxes from a conveyor onto a pallet and stretch wraps the pallet load. Install this system in your workplace, and you may introduce new hazards, such as

  • impact and crushing hazards from contact with robotic arms
  • impact hazards from the uncontrolled release/ejection of a box or other product by palletizer robots
  • impact hazards associated with palletized products tipping or falling over
  • impact, entanglement and burn hazards associated with stretch wrapping systems
  • entanglement and drawing-in hazards associated with pallet conveyors
  • impact, crushing and shear hazards during conveyance of loaded pallets.

Each of these hazards could cause life altering or even fatal injuries. Minimize the hazards by building safety into the handling system from the beginning. Robert suggests applying these 10 tactics:

1. Think forward. Choose a handling system with the capabilities you require now and in the future. Develop a checklist before you purchase to ensure the equipment has the right safety features, meets the necessary requirements, and complies with applicable legislative and industry standards (e.g. CSA, ANSI, ISO, etc.).

2. Understand your responsibilities as an employer under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Also, ensure any other regulatory requirements are met (e.g. a Pre-Start Health and Safety Review, as per O.Reg. 851 - Industrial Establishments, Section 7).

3. Know what you need from the system integrator. Select a system integrator who 1) is experienced in the design, build and installation of robotic palletizer systems, and 2) has expertise in integrating and implementing all elements of these systems.

4. Ensure the integrator implements a risk assessment process early in the design phase so that all tasks and hazards associated with the system are identified and the appropriate risk reduction measures are put in place. These assessments are mandatory under CSA Z432-16, Safeguarding of machinery and CSA-Z434-14, Industrial robots and robot systems.

5. Involve end users. The installer knows the equipment, but as the end-user you know your process and operational needs. Include equipment operators, representatives from engineering, health and safety, maintenance, quality assurance, and purchasing. Each person has expertise to contribute.

6. Include ergonomics in your safety considerations. Designing a handling system using sound ergonomic principles will reduce the risk of MSD (musculoskeletal disorder) injuries. Keep in mind factors such as e-stop locations within arm’s length of operator working positions, operator product load conveyor height and reach dimensions, etc.

7. Ensure the integrator verifies and validates the system’s safety requirements and protective measures, and that they are documented in accordance with CSA Z434-14. These include ensuring correct safeguarding, appropriate functional safety performance of safety related systems, and appropriate space and clearance requirements within the robot cell.

8. Integrate your safety strategy into your overall safety program, which should centre on policies and procedures, including a solid lockout/tagout procedure, and training.

9. Provide operators, maintenance staff and other stakeholders with comprehensive training on equipment hazards, safety features, safe operation, safe entry into robot cells, and lockout-tagout. People who don’t understand the hazards and related precautions are often the ones who start taking shortcuts.

10. Periodically review safety performance and act on any shortcomings and opportunities for improvement.

Introducing a new handling system is a heady moment for any workplace. Following these steps will minimize the risk of injury and help you realize the productivity, quality and competitiveness gains that your new system offers.

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The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.