Working in manufacturing can be dangerous. Although improvements have been made, manufacturing came in second for the industry with the most injuries and illnesses involving days away from work — totaling 125,990 cases in 2014. Leading causes of injury include overexertion (especially when lifting or lowering), coming into contact with objects, and slips, trip and falls.

Giving dangerous tasks to machines

Since manufacturing is such a dangerous industry, some of the riskiest jobs have been replaced by robots, called automation in the industry. While initially some of this automation was meant to increase productivity, what is especially important is how it helps make workplaces safer.

For instance, robotic arms can now do work on assembly lines, keeping workers from being exposed to dangerous situations and repetitive tasks that wear on their muscles and joints. 

As technology advances, automation is going to grow in the manufacturing industry and beyond, leaving some concerned about loss of jobs. But others believe that in today’s workplaces, when automation is done correctly, it makes everyone safer and doesn’t have to result in job loss. Even when workers are removed from risky tasks, they can be still be involved in the work, such as in programming the new machines and operating and maintaining the new technology. There is still work, but now it can be done in a much safer environment.  

While initially some of this automation was meant to increase productivity, what is especially important is how it helps make workplaces safer.

Transitioning to new skills

Transitioning workers to these new job roles requires an investment in training and development. There are real benefits and real downsides to replacing workers with robots. Losing the knowledge of a worker that has been performing a task for years can be disastrous for both safety and productivity. After all, who knows better how things should work in a newly-automated process than the person who has been doing it since a facility opened?

Technology can also have a direct, proactive safety benefit beyond replacing or automating dangerous tasks. Three areas where exciting work is taking place are the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors, cameras and wearables, and virtual reality.

The IoT, put simply, is communication between machines, objects and people. This has numerous safety benefits. For example, through automated safeguards and braking mechanisms, this technology can stop a fork lift that is coming too close to workers. Essentially, sensors on the forklift and workers are in constant communication about where they are in relation to one another, preventing unnecessary collisions.

Cameras are now small and high-resolution enough to be placed in visors, goggles and hard hats. This allows manufacturing safety professionals to see what workers are seeing and make adjustments to tasks that are causing too much of a risk. It also allows them to better coach their workers about the best way to safely get a job done.

Finally, the size and cost of virtual reality equipment has decreased dramatically, making it more readily available in workplaces. There is a growing trend of virtual reality use in safety training, allowing for a more hands-on approach to experiencing dangers in a safe environment.

Technology and automation in manufacturing have the potential to keep workers safer than ever before. Every innovation takes time and comes with its own set of issues, but leading companies are embracing technology while facing these challenges head-on. If the growth of smart phones has been any indication, a decade from now these innovations will be the norm – and manufacturing workers will be safer for it.