The Machines Are Coming: NIOSH Speakers Preview the Future of Occupational Robotics

​By Kay Bechtold

Minneapolis Convention Center (May 22, 2019)—“Robots are being let out of their cages,” and NIOSH’s Chuck Geraci, PhD, CIH, FAIHA, and Naomi Swanson, PhD, were at AIHce EXP 2019 yesterday to discuss what an increasing amount of human-robot interaction means for workers and the field of industrial hygiene. Gone are the days when robots operated in isolation, away from humans, or in cages, Geraci said, noting that sales of both traditional and collaborative robots are on the rise. (Collaborative robots accompany workers, assist them, and help them perform tasks.) More and different kinds of robots are being introduced to businesses around the world, and Geraci stressed that they need to be managed, controlled, and programmed. It’s also important to understand the potential hazards and implications of these emerging technologies, he said.

Enter the NIOSH Center for Occupational Robotics Research, or CORR, a virtual center that was created in 2017 to evaluate potential benefits and risks of robots in the workplace; monitor trends in injuries related to robots; and prepare for the safe and responsible introduction of advanced robotics in industry. Geraci explained that CORR “keeps an eye on traditional robots,” but focuses the majority of its efforts on emerging robotics technologies such as mobile robots, powered exoskeletons or exosuits, remotely controlled and autonomous vehicles and drones, and future robots that will use advanced artificial intelligence. CORR partners with researchers, trade associations, robotics manufacturers, employers using robotics technology, and other stakeholders to advance research in the field. Geraci wants people to be able to look to NIOSH to answer questions about the human health and safety implications of the increase in the use of robots.

There is tremendous potential for robotics, Geraci said. For example, there are opportunities to expand the amount of dangerous work performed by robots (so humans don’t have to). Other robotic systems are able to augment workers’ abilities, including strength. Clear concerns include possible injuries due to increased human interaction with robots and the possibility that some workers will be displaced by robots. Geraci pointed out further potential issues: these new types of robots will require refined and new protection strategies, and rapid advances in technology may outpace standards setting. Stress associated with the changing workplace due to the rise in the use of robots is another point of concern.

The use of artificial intelligence is a major component of CORR’s research. Earlier this year, the center was given the opportunity to fund some pilot projects in robotics. These studies are examining contact avoidance between human workers and collaborative robots and the use of drones in construction and their effect on workers at height. Researchers are also seeking to measure the dynamic force impacts of collaborative robots on humans—for example, how much force does a robot have to put on your wrist to crush it?

Research on occupational robotics is already embedded in the new NIOSH strategic plan, Geraci said. The agency has set research goals related to traumatic injury prevention, musculoskeletal health, and other areas.

“We need to be very deliberate” about research related to occupational robotics and “come up with good data on how to improve safety of human-robot interaction,” Geraci concluded.

Geraci’s colleague, Naomi Swanson, who is chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch in the NIOSH Division of Applied Research and Technology, continued the discussion, seeking to answer a question on many workers’ minds: do robots and automation herald the end of work?

“There is this very dystopian view where every job will be automated, and machines will completely replace humans,” she said.

Some believe that automation is going to destroy jobs and lead to massive unemployment, while others predict that machines will help get rid of all the “dirty jobs” that humans don’t want to do. Swanson believes the answer is most likely somewhere in the middle.

Technology and automation are going to impact jobs, Swanson said. Some jobs are going to disappear—some jobs already have—but she stressed that technology has many benefits. Swanson described the potential impact of automation on jobs as going in one of three directions: it could replace humans in a large number of jobs; shift or transform the types of jobs done by humans without replacing them; or there could be a net increase in jobs due to increased productivity and innovation from technological change.

According to Swanson, factors that affect automation include economics, the cost of technology, and the labor market. She explained that automation usually reduces the prices of products and services, but that lower prices of goods and services may increase demand to the point that there’s increased need for labor. Low-wage jobs are at the greatest risk of automation, but Swanson noted that there are exceptions—childcare, for example. (She pointed out that most people probably wouldn’t want to leave their kids in the care of robots.) Low wages may slow the speed of automation. And since new technology requires a skilled work force, skill gaps and shortages may also slow the adoption of automation. Swanson further argued that there has to be social and regulatory acceptance of automation, noting that interpersonal aspects of work can have “incredible impact on worker health and well-being.”

Swanson also spoke to the benefits automation could bring about for workers. Robots and other technologies create opportunities for humans to perform entirely new tasks, do tasks that cannot be done by humans such as analyzing big data, and can perform in unhealthy or dangerous environments or perform dangerous manual tasks. Automation can also enhance human capabilities—Swanson pointed to exoskeletons—and enable people with disabilities to do a broader range of work than they might otherwise have been able to do.

“Automation is occurring at an increasing pace and will impact nearly all occupations,” she said. “The risk of job replacement is greatest for jobs that are highly routine and amenable to automation.”

Swanson stressed that automation will cause jobs to change. She sees automation creating a higher demand for more educated workers and an emphasis on creative decision-making and interpersonal skills. New specialist roles in big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics engineering are also on the horizon. Most of all, she said, advances in automation will increase the need for “lifelong learning,” reskilling, and upskilling throughout workers’ careers.

“Companies will need to make education of employees a priority,” Swanson concluded.

Kay Bechtold is senior editor of The Synergist.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.