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Will Ergonomics Rule Lead To More Robotics Use?

POSTED 02/27/2001

 | By: Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor

New rules issued by the U.S. Department of Labor in January are intended to protect some 100 million workers from on-the-job ergonomic hazards. One likely consequence of the regulation will be renewed interest by manufacturers and others in the use of automation as a solution to their compliance challenges.

How significant a boost to the robotics industry is anyone's guess, but many see wide-ranging effects, covering some forty percent of industrial output in the Unites States, according to one observer. Other effects could include lower insurance premiums for manufacturers who implement robotics automation and for labor unions who benefit from lower ergonomics risks. The issue is important to labor since their members face daily musculoskeletal hazards. Several makers of industrial robotics are hopeful that the new rules will stimulate their businesses.

'I am guardedly optimistic that this going to be a boon for the robotics industry,' says Vern Mangold, Rixan Associate's director of sales and marketing. Industries that are candidates for a renewed drive to employ robotics range from foundry and die-casting to food processing and automobile manufacturing, Mangold says.

While the regulation does not specify robotics as a means of addressing ergonomic hazards, some experts believe manufacturers will be more likely to deploy automation to comply. And penalties for non-compliance will be high, as much as $70,000 per incident.

'Robotics could be a solution for a broader slice of industries. It's intriguing because it goes beyond the industries that currently make wide use of robotics,' says Jeff Fryman, standards development manager of the Robotic Industries Association. Fryman sees tantalizing opportunities for robotics as a means of avoiding musculoskeletal risks of the sort OSHA seeks to regulate.

His views are shared by Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University's Department of Design and Environmental Analysis. 'Workers are being injured by lifting heavy objects. If a robotic device can be used to do the heavy lifting, that would be wonderful.' Hedge notes the ergonomic risks of working overhead, a common practice in automobile manufacturing. 'Anyone who has to work with their arms above elbow level is going to experience an increase in shoulder-loading, which is going to translate into an increased risk of injury. If you can design a robot to perform that kind of function, that would be ideal.'

Others are more circumspect about prospects for robotics in light of the new regulation. 'Certainly robotics can be considered a solution to ergonomic problems, but it is not the [only] solution,' says Dr. Brad Joseph, manager of ergonomics and safety process at the Ford Motor Company. 'Automation works well in areas where there are consistent 20, 30 or 40-second cycles,' limiting to some extent the opportunities where robotics can solve ergonomic hazards, he argues.

Areas of Opportunity
Any manufacturing processes that involves heavy lifting or repetitive motion will become more attractive candidates for automation under OSHA's new rules. But three types of activities that have been identified as most likely to result in ergonomic injuries deserve particular scrutiny by robotics makers. One is any repetitive process that calls for applying force while rotating the wrist. Workers in the casting and metal-working industries that have to deburr or grind small parts and fabrications are an obvious example. There are many methods for deburring and performing surface treatments on a part's external surfaces, such as robotic grinding. However, if a part has internal detail to grind, hand-held power tools are often used. 'Those applications will certainly be in the cross-hairs' of change, according to Mangold.

Robotics manufacturers are primed to capitalize on this requirement. 'I am sure there was fatigue and I am sure there were workers' compensation claims,' said Mangold. 'We're cranking up a renewed effort to go after robotic de-burring in a big way by offering some standard products.' Rixan, based in Dayton, Ohio, plans to develop a turnkey robotics work-cell ideally suited for de-burring. 'Because the conventional wisdom in the robotics industry was the ergonomics regulation would be put on hold indefinitely, this is something that we did not envision six month ago,' Mangold says.

Another group of processes likely to go the way of robotics involves plastics assembly. Plastic assemblies that snap together require wrist pressure, often at awkward angles. This must be done repetitively throughout the day. 'There are a slew of those types of companies within the plastics assembly industry that are going to have problems,' predicts Mangold. They include industries ranging from toy manufacturing to computer assembly to food packaging.

A third area involves processes involving hand-held knife cutting, such as meatpacking and leather cutting. Continuously applying pressure at a point tangent to the turning radius to the wrist puts these workers at risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome and other musculoskeletal disorders. Currently, there is little use of robotics in meatpacking and leather cutting operations, but the new regulation may change that.

The move towards intelligent assist devices or 'hybrid robots' in the auto-making industry will likely see more investment and R&D as a result of regulation. According to Brian Peacock, former manager of General Motors' Manufacturing Ergonomics Lab and now a NASA engineer, these types of devices fit well with OSHA's aim of reducing strain-based injuries. 'The human still controls the motion, but the device eliminates the need to apply strength. These are being increasingly used in the automotive industry.' But Peacock expresses one caveat. 'Semi-automatic devices or assist devices may slow down the operator, who might be able to do the operation faster manually.' As a result, sometimes the devices are shunted off to a corner and left unused. 'There are acceptance problems' among workers that need to be addressed, he notes.

Palletizing Possibilities 
Palletizing is another domain in which robotics could grow in the wake of the new ergonomics regulation. ABB's Douglas Niebruegge points out that robotics could assist 'any industries that currently do manual palletizing with boxes or bags,' as well as non-packaged items such as building materials. 'That is an opportunity because they tend to be heavy loads,' he says, noting the size of the palletizing market. 'There is a lot of manual palletizing and packing going on out there.'

Insurance Incentives
In this age of litigation, the new ergonomics standard will also affect the insurance industry and the manufacturers that they underwrite. Wayne Maynard, product director for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, estimates that ten percent of its claims are related to ergonomic injuries, but they generate 90 percent of its costs.

'The return-to-work costs are the largest portion of these costs,' specifically injuries where workers are unable to return to work and end up on disability, Maynard says. 'Lower back injuries are huge, 15 percent of all claims, and 23 percent of all costs.' Such economic costs are often passed on to the policy holder, who ultimately passes them on to their customer in the form of higher prices. By alleviating ergonomic problems-and associated insurance claims-robotics could provide a measurable benefit to the bottom line, says Maynard.

Do labor unions see using robotics as a means of complying with the ergonomics regulation a threat to their members?  'I do not. It is no more of an incentive than we already have to get rid of people,' says Frank Mirer, director health and safety department of the United Auto Workers. Nor would utilizing robotics to address ergonomic problems cause workers to be re-assigned within a factory, according to Mirer. 'I do not think there is any differential impact of ergonomics. Ergonomics is not going to change any of that. I think this leads to increased quality and efficiency, to the  degree that has anything to do with job retention, it will be a plus.'  Mirer continued, 'You have to separate mechanization from automation. I think at both levels, [the regulation] is positive.' Asked he could recall an example of internal displacement as the result of robotics being installed specifically to deal with ergonomic problems, Mirer replied 'I do not have an example of a robot being put in just to deal with an ergonomic problem.' His colleague at the UAW, Jim Howe, noted that there 'is an incentive to comply with the regulation, and in many cases that would include modifying processes and design. Manufacturers would be automating a process where a person is lifting a 75-lb. part and can address the hazard by using a robot.' Both stressed that there would not likely be job loss by their membership due to robotics being installed.

While the industry stands to gain from the new OSHA rule, it is not likely to be a windfall. As Ford's Brad Joseph put it, 'Manufacturers are not necessarily going to say 'Okay, a job has an ergonomic problem, let's go automate it.' Some jobs are just not robotics-friendly at this point.' Implementing robotics doesn't completely eliminate ergonomic risks. A worker must supervise the robotics cell, which often entails sitting at a computer in a monitoring room. That activity itself is considered ergonomically risky under the new OSHA standard.