OHS Canada Magazine

‘My new co-worker is shiny’: Pandemic accelerated adoption of workplace robots

Technology might be one of the key safety solutions for the evolving workplace


Photo: Getty Images

By Jack Burton

As new workplace health and safety needs surface due to the pandemic, these emerging demands require fresh, dynamic solutions. Among the potential tools to help employers adapt is robotics — a field whose focus on innovation has positioned its technology to be a perfect fit for occupational safety.

For robotics, pandemic was its time to shine

The intersection between advancements in workplace robotics and the pandemic’s heightened need for new occupational safety tools has lead organizations to not only explore these new technologies, but re-evaluate and recast robotics’ role as an appropriate workplace safety solution, according to Rob Vomiero, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services’ specialized services lead in machine and robotics safety.

Vomiero explained that, in the years before the pandemic, “from a user-based or organizational standpoint, I think the perception used to be that robotics were expensive or overcomplicated, or the return on investment or learning curve might not be ideal.”

However, the increased safety demands of COVID-19 left organizations more open to any solutions that could help, and Vomiero believes robotics have succeeded at using this opportunity to showcase the potential operational impact they can have.

“With some of the needs that robots have been able to fill during the pandemic,” Vomiero said that, “overall, its just really opened the eyes of some organizations to the fact that robotics can really benefit operations, and they don’t really involve the level of complexity that they once did.”

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Pandemic or not, Vomiero does not see robotics’ expanded role as temporary.

“With the introduction of some of these new technologies, what the pandemic has really set industries up for is more out of the box thinking on the different uses for robots,” he said.

Two types of robots

Vomiero highlighted two types of robot that, in recent years, have become primary drivers of growth in workplace robotics’ potential safety applications, these being the collaborative application robot and the industrial mobile robot.

The impact of these technologies comes from groundbreaking safety features that allow them to openly assist and operate alongside employees onsite. Specifically, this allows collaborative application robots to safely aid employees with otherwise risky job tasks, while built-in GPS and mapping software allows industrial mobile robots to navigate the work area in a secure and autonomous way.

“Really, what these robots become is a co-worker to the human being,” said Vomiero.

By moving this technology toward a more direct, collaborative role, these innovations mark a significant and more impactful development away from workplace robots’ previous methods of implementation.

“This ability to work side by side, between human and robot, increases efficiency and safety when compared to your traditional robots. Those didn’t have some of these safety capabilities and functionalities built into them, and this required complete separation between the human and the robot,” Vomiero explained.

Real innovation through real-world design philosophies

Accelerating the growing impact and adoption of these new technologies is a needs-based, worker-first approach that modern safety robotics has made the focus of its research and development process, according to Alex Mihailidis, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, and the Barbara G. Stymiest Research Chair in Rehab Technology.

“Typically in terms of research and development in robotics, we really try to go after real world problems that are trying to be solved,” said Mihailidis. “It really becomes a matter of working towards specific problems that truly exist out there, as opposed to just having a technology-first approach.”

Designing robots aimed at making a tangible impact on workplaces depends on a number of variables, with developers looking not just at the tasks this technology aims to optimize, but also the needs of the workplace and worker as well.

“Obviously, in terms of us who develop these robotic systems, we always keep key things in mind, such as improving the safety, efficiency, and effectiveness of the work team and staff members,” Mihailidis said. “We also then try and understand where new processes can be introduced, such as where a robot may be able to complete tasks with a higher degree of precision and efficiency as needed.”

This design focus has lead to solutions that build a system that compliments the needs of both the workplace and those within it, Mihailidis said.

“One thing we always also look at and try to understand in our research is the interaction of the worker and the robot itself. We look at how robotics can increase the safety of each particular worker.”

Robotics aim to empower, not replace

Mihailidis emphasized that organizations adopting robotics to perform otherwise unsafe or stressful workplace tasks is not about replacing employees who would traditionally be performing them, but rather providing an overall enrichment of safety in these environments.

For Mihailidis, whose research has focused on the use of safety robots in healthcare settings, “the whole idea there is not to replace nurses or care staff, but to really free up their time so that they can be focusing on the more important parts of their care duties, as opposed to spending time doing the repetitive tasks that robots excel at doing.”

While concerns of job displacement can be associated with automation and robotic solutions, Mihailidis clarified that the ultimate aim of most developers is collaboration, not replacement, when it comes to the relationship between worker and robot.

“In many activities, it’s hard to do a complete replacement of a human worker as opposed to them working together with the robots as a system. That’s really what we aim for,” he said. “It’s about a combination of human workers and robots working together to create an overall better environment for everyone to be working in.”

Artificial intelligence’s path to the future

One of the main technologies bridging human effort with robotic assistance is artificial intelligence.

“What I’m seeing in the field is that a lot of companies are thinking about how artificial intelligence can enhance existing technologies that are being utilized for health and safety practices,” said Arif Jetha, a scientist at the Institute for Work & Health.

The promise of artificial intelligence has far-reaching implications in helping employees and robotics collaborate toward a safer workplace, Jetha believes, specifically by allowing machines and humans not just to work together, but grow together.

“The ability for a machine to take different types of data and information and evaluate it, and then learn and make predictions: that type of technology has great promise to advance a lot of the different types of functions that exist within a workplace, to enable machines to be smarter, and to work alongside humans more effectively,” he said.

Two concerns that Jetha highlighted, however, was a relative lack of studies and academic literature on the impact of workplace artificial intelligence due to the newness of this field, along with this technology’s potential for algorithmic biases.

“This is an important lesson that health and safety professionals can think about as they’re evaluating what types of artificial intelligence tools they want to bring into their workplace and how they want to integrate it,” Jetha said. For him, “properly navigating these biases means ensuring that the technology serves and favours the needs of the employee.”

“I think this idea of equitable artificial intelligence that is emerging is something that people should be paying attention to, as there’s this growing realization that if an artificial intelligence tool isn’t built equitably and with the perspectives of the worker in mind, there’s a potential that the worker could be disadvantaged by that tool,” Jetha said.

Jack Burton is a Toronto-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to OHS Canada.