Industry 4.0 and a focus on connected technology can help bolster the health and safety advantages of staples such as protective goggles and high-visibility gear. JOHN YOUNG explores how industrial managers in manufacturing can get connected with the latest technologies that monitor their workers’ health and avoid injury.
Health and safety in the manufacturing industry is of particular importance. Safe Work Australia, for example, reported that manufacturing accounted for 13 workplace fatalities in 2018. This placed the sector fourth in the fatality rankings, with only agriculture, transport and warehousing, and construction suffering from higher numbers. Personal protective equipment (PPE) plays an important role in keeping workers safe and seen. Yet developments in wearable sensors are transforming the potential of PPE by giving personnel a more accurate understanding of the wearer’s health.
Embedding these sensors into everyday protective gear — such as a high-vis vest — means management can measure the wearer’s blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and breathing to make sure their vital statistics remain within heathy limits. Workers in extreme temperatures can receive notifications when it is time for a hydration break, or those working in confined spaces, such as a semiconductor plant, can be alerted when they have been spending too long in a restricted area. The sensors can also help to detect abnormal worker behaviour, such as entry into a restricted or hazardous area, and alert management and the employee before they come to harm.
Another trend is to incorporate signalisation systems and augmented reality modules into PPE to provide hazard warnings to workers and instructions on how to avoid these hazards. The worker using the glasses can connect with a member of staff away from the shop floor, and a ‘see what I see’ view allows more than one pair of eyes to be on a particularly dangerous job. As the observing worker can see exactly what is going on, they can help their onsite colleague carry out dangerous work more safely by guiding them as they go.
Industrial robots are generally regarded as dangerous machines that are often confined to cages to avoid injuring human workers. However, there are some tasks that require man and machine to work side by side. Collaborative robots, known as ‘cobots’, were introduced to the manufacturing industry in the 1990s. These robots are built to be smaller, lighter and safer than their traditional ancestors. Cobots that work alongside or even directly with humans can now be found in many facilities.
One of the most frequent injuries sustained by industrial workers is body stressing, caused by carrying out repetitive tasks for an extended period. This can result in musculoskeletal injuries, which can lead to life-changing conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, back and neck pain and sarcopenia. Cobots can take this strain away from human workers by supporting them with lifting and manoeuvring heavy items. The cobots themselves are manufactured with many built-in safety functions, including fixed and adjustable force limits, sensors and automatic stopping.
Just because we cannot always see danger, this does not mean that it is not there. Drones are able to use complex cameras to access dangerous manufacturing areas where humans would be at risk. They can access areas that are too hot or too cold, contain dangerous machinery or can be used in cases where there have been chemical spills or risk of radiation. A manufacturing facility can be a vast and imposing structure, so inspecting the entire premises frequently cannot always be carried out manually. Industries can employ drones to perform inspections, in responding to broken boiler pipes, for example, and get a closer look at maintenance issues that may be difficult or dangerous for employees to reach.
Adding virtual reality increases the capabilities of the drones, enabling workers to learn more about their facility remotely. For example, a person can have a tour of a facility or construction site before a project has started. This virtual tour enables facility managers to have an idea of a site before they physically set foot there, which is especially useful for a factory undergoing refurbishment. It not only prepares them for any hazards or dangers they may need to fix, but it also gives the manager the opportunity to plan for any replacement parts or equipment that the plant requires. Industrial health and safety should always be taken seriously, especially in manufacturing, which has a range of unique hazards. By providing a hands-free connection to the digital word, technology can help improve the safety of workers and take them away from dangerous situations.
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