Manufacturers can use technology to manage health and safety risks

Out-Law Analysis | 27 Mar 2018 | 11:24 am | 4 min. read

ANALYSIS: Manufacturers can use the latest digital technologies to better manage health and safety risks, but must be conscious of the new risks that might be introduced into their processes from implementing those technologies.

Technology is enabling manufacturers to improve how the make goods and move towards more personalised production, however the impact of these changes on workers' health, safety and wellbeing is often not well understood.

Here we take a closer look at the technologies being used by manufacturers and both the benefits they offer and challenges they raise for compliance with health and safety laws.

Technology – the benefits

Robotics and automation, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, 3D printing and enhanced connectivity through the 'internet of things' (IoT) are among the technologies driving the fourth industrial revolution.

Robots have been around for a while in the manufacturing process, but the combination of robotics with ‘intelligent machine’ advances means that robots are increasingly able to mimic human traits such as dexterity and memory, enhancing the capability they offer in industries like manufacturing and delivering greater efficiency.

According to Forbes, algorithms can now provide relevant data that increases production capacity by 20% as well as determine which factors impact service and production quality. Intelligent machines reduce wasted time and materials, as well as optimal accuracy and workflow.

Manufacturers are also leading the charge in its uptake of the IoT. The IoT is, at a basic level, about the connectivity of devices at both a machine-to-machine level and their interaction with people and software applications too. Market analysts IDC have forecast that global spending on the IoT will reach $772.5 billion in 2018 and surpass $1 trillion by 2020.

IoT technology can provide real-time feedback on how equipment is working and alert companies to defects or damaged goods. The IoT also offers the potential to enable businesses to respond more effectively to customer demands.

The manufacturing sector is also seeing developments in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology involves working with tiny particles of materials at nanoscale – many such nanomaterials can be found in everyday products such as electronics, foods and sun protection creams. Life sciences companies may also, for example, create and use nanomaterials in the production of new medicines.

Technology – the challenges

Technology, on the face of it, appears to have the potential to eliminate risk completely or to reduce it so far as is reasonably practicable for manufacturing businesses. This is because manufacturing is a sector that is used to process engineering and the use of technology to achieve its primary purpose – to make things that we need or want. 

In many cases there technology will be able to provide for safer working environments for people by removing them from dangerous or unsuitable situations. However, technology is not the answer to everything and its use may in some cases actually introduce new health and safety risks into manufacturing operations.

Using robots to carry out functions that have been traditionally performed by humans can, for example, create complacency about risk – the robots literally have it all in hand – or abdication of personal responsibility for managing risk.

There is also a further question of whether the introduction of technology displaces risk. For example, manufacturers might use robots to undertake operations that posed health and safety risks to human workers, but they would need to ensure that their movements on the factory floor and interaction between them and human beings is fully assessed and managed.

Manufacturers should also be conscious of potential latent risk arising from the use of technology that is perhaps not understood because of an underlying failure of design and computer programming. Such faults might, for example, result in inadvertent or erratic movements or behaviour by machines.

Health and safety risks arise in the servicing or repair of technology being used in production too. There have been many cases resulting in enforcement action where operatives have sought to remove blockages in line equipment, or affect a running repair, that has resulted in serious injury or death. This still requires robust management of 'people'.  These are matters that manufacturers must consider as they look to technology to address safety risks.

Handling nanomaterials also poses health risks. Those risks are broad and can be influenced by many factors including their size, aggregation and agglomeration – how particles stick together, solubility and electrical charge.

Particle shape is of significance too: there are concerns about fibre-shaped materials such as long, thin and rigid carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and other fibre or wire- shaped nano-objects. In some cases, these can behave in the same way as asbestos fibres which are able to travel down to the deepest parts of the lungs but are then too long for the normal clearance mechanisms to remove successfully.

There are other more pernicious risks on the horizon. Information technologies can leave people continually connected and over-engaged to work and lead to fatigue and exhaustion. The Health and Safety Executive has estimated that some 60-80% of accidents are related to fatigue and poor judgement.

Worker wellbeing

Further consideration should also be given to worker wellbeing from the introduction of new technologies into manufacturing processes.

It is far more likely that people and intelligent machines will increasingly become ‘colleagues’ in the future. A colleague who can work without breaks, who is always ‘on,’ who isn’t going to share much ‘social’ information, is a very different colleague; a relationship that could easily create stress and undermine wellbeing. People at work derive important health benefits from the social nature of work and this will be an issue to address in the future.

Working with robots that do not need to chat, socialise or take a break, in a context of an ever-greater drive for efficiency, also carries risks of exhaustion and burn-out among human workers.

So, while technology can provide many of the answers for manufacturers seeking to streamline and enhance their operations, it does not mean that manufacturers should stop investing in people and the process of keeping them safe.

Contributions to this article came from the British Standards Council and Sean Elson, a specialist in health and safety law at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. Pinsent Masons will be attending the Health and Safety exhibition and conference hosted by the British Safety Council on 10-12 April 2018 in Birmingham, where partner Sean Elson will be chairing a panel discussion on the challenges in modern manufacturing.