February 7, 2019

Researchers Assess Safety of Collaborative Robots in Quebec

An exploratory study conducted in Québec, Canada, examined risks related to collaborative robots, or “cobots,” which accompany workers, assist them, and help them perform tasks. The increased use of cobots—a new type of robot that interacts with production workers—has led to occupational health and safety issues such as collision risks; psychological and social risks related to human stress associated with cobot movements and work pace; and risks of musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs.

According to researchers at IRSST, the nonprofit scientific research organization that conducted the study, some cobots are designed to prevent MSDs, but workers who operate cobots must learn to handle them properly to limit or prevent MSDs. IRSST researchers set out to identify occupational safety recommendations regarding the implementation of robots in collaborative settings and to inform stakeholders about the issues involved in implementing cobotic installations. The study report is intended for those who have acquired or are planning to acquire a robot for the purpose of collaborative application in production.

Study participants indicated that risk assessment is the most difficult step in designing a cobot installation; the technology is new and involves “very specific safety requirements.” Participants noted that risk assessment for a cobotic installation was often limited to risk identification.

“To know whether a robot can be used in a collaborative context, at the very least the risks of the future installation must be estimated in order to determine the minimum required performance level,” researchers stated. “The performance level of the safety functions must be equal or superior to this minimum and be consistent with the analysis of the risks associated with collaborative operation.”

Manufacturers’ reference manuals and cobotics standards specify that risk assessment is always needed at the integration stage for collaborative robots. IRSST researchers stress that protective measures may be required based on the degree of acceptability of the risk in question.

The report, “Collaborative Robotics: Assessment of Safety Functions and Feedback from Workers, Users and Integrators in Quebec,” is available for download from IRSST’s website.