The advance of safety technologies is most evident in the cars we drive in everyday life or for work.   Stability control, traction control, GPS navigation, back-up camera, “blind side” alert during lane change, forward collision avoidance — automatic breaking when something is in the vehicle’s path — and other safety technologies are now common.  

By 2020, vehicle technology will become co-pilots for safety. Computers will make some safety decisions for the human driver.  The driverless car is expected by 2030 and safety will almost entirely be taken over by the car’s sensors and computer. Human passengers must trust that the car will not drive off the road and down a cliff. Defensive driving will take on a whole new meaning.

Robotic beast?

Many safety pros are familiar with robotic cells, particularly in assembly operations. The robotic beast capable of great power and speed is caged within a fence that protects outsiders from harm. If a worker needs to enter the cage, interlocked safety gates trigger the beast to power down. Workers in the cage who want the beast to perform have replaced the chair and whip with the Teach Pendant.

You should wipe away this image of robots. The future use of robots at work will be something much different.1 Advanced safety technologies are removing the robot from its cage. The new image is a robotic arm swinging quickly toward a worker, but as the robot “senses” the presence of the worker, the robotic arm goes into slow motion and passes a part or provides some other service to a side-by-side human counterpart.

False comfort

Manufacturer and employer adherence to numerous standards such as ISO 26262:2011 for automotive functional safety2 and ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012 for Industrial Robots and Robot Systems-Safety Requirements3 help ensure that machine safety becomes highly reliable. 

Reliability of equipment, however, can create false comfort zones. Best practices and OSHA requirements call for the safety functions of forklifts to be verified with a checklist before each shift.  Do the horn and brake work? Is there minimum play in the steering wheel? Modern and maintained equipment rarely has deficiencies that would take the forklift out of service. Encountering no problems day-after-day and week-after-week, employees begin to slack off and pencil whip an OK for each box on the daily forklift checklist — this is what safety audits often show.

In highway driving we are taught before a lane change to glance over the left and right shoulders to make sure there the lane is clear. We’re taught to back vehicles slowly, even sound the horn as an alert if needed, to avoid hitting someone or something. We’re taught to plan our turns ahead. Will the art of driving safely be diminished as the science of vehicle safety technology takes on these tasks for us?

Who’s at fault – machine or man?

The concept that the “machine screwed up” needs to be diminished. Somewhere along the value chain, human intervention screwed up. The unfolding root-cause analyses of GM’s ignition switch failure4 or Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems5 reveal many management pitfalls. We should not diminish our accountabilities. Where does the fault primarily fall when a person, obeying the command of the vehicle’s navigation system, turns the car onto an active railroad track? There should always be human accountability for safety.

Emphasize fact-finding

Adding to the machine vs. man safety argument, many people believe 80 percent or more of injuries are caused by unsafe acts (man) and about 20 percent are caused by unsafe conditions (the machine screwed up). This belief system forces fault-finding toward what a person did wrong. This is particularly true when the cause of an injury is difficult to recreate — often the case when investigating incidents involving modern safety technologies. Debating acts versus conditions becomes moot during true root cause analysis driven by fact-finding. 

Root cause expertise

One problem with root cause analysis for modern safety technologies is the lack of expertise to carry out complete fact-finding. Safety technology advancements rely heavily upon experts who wire and program machines to do what they should do. The ability to read wiring schematics and test circuits is often the domain of an electrical engineer and is not among the strong skills of the average safety pro.   Not every workplace will be fortunate enough to have ready access to people with these types of technology skills. Root cause analysis may be delayed until people with needed expertise are found and put to the task.

The need to verify

It’s a challenge to verify that modern safety technologies, driven primarily by computer functions, are always safe. There is no simple visual glance to assure safety — such as looking for guards around machine pinch hazards, making visual confirmation that floors are free from trip hazards, or even simple verification that lifting devices, such as a chain or hoist, can hold an intended load. 

Modern safety technologies will often require testing various circuits, sensors, and program commands under varying, even rare, conditions. These actions will require skills that average safety pros might need to obtain.  Conformance with voluntary standards from organizations such as ISO and ANSI will be more helpful than meeting minimal requirements from OSHA. Safety pros must keep pace with modern safety technologies. This will require your commitment to continued education – something that should be budgeted for in time and cost.