EHS in the age of robotics
Report from AIHce 2016
Robots are everywhere these days – from tackling robots on football practice fields to assembly lines to warehouse retrieval systems to surgical operations. At this year’s American Industrial Hygiene Conference & Expo, which kicked off officially Monday in sunny Baltimore, ISHN talked to one expo vendor, RoboVent, about the invasion of robots into the welding field. Robotic welders are productive: a handful of robots can do the welding of dozens of people. By one estimate, robots spend 80 percent of their time welding, compared to 30 percent for human welders. The operation is also less hazardous: robots don’t have to worry about the health effects of welding fumes, and toxins such as magnesium and hexavalent chromium.
But this doesn’t necessarily make for a safe work environment. Robots create greater widespread exposures due to their ability to weld at faster rates, higher volumes, and higher concentrations. There still is very much the need for either source capture of fumes or mapping production areas through exposure assessments and installing ventilation stations.
Robotic welding is part of a larger trend. Increasingly “dirty” and dangerous jobs are being automated, reducing close proximity human exposures. But hazardous exposures are still present, and still must be anticipated, detected, evaluated and controlled by EHS professionals. Robotics won’t eliminate the need for EHS; they will change the nature of the work and skill set needed. OK, communication and leadership skills aren’t critical when dealing with robot workers, but EHS risk assessments and control strategies will still be required.