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NIOSH exploring how construction workers and robots can safely coexist

Photo: phuttaphat tipsana/iStockphoto

Washington — NIOSH will continue to research how construction sites that use robots can be kept safe for workers, agency Director John Howard says.

In the February edition of NIOSH Research Rounds, Howard cites recent research by the International Federation of Robotics showing that in 2022, the global average robot density in manufacturing was 151 robots per 10,000 workers – more than double the figure in 2018. Robot density in the United States (285 robots per 10,000 workers) was above the worldwide average.

In 2017, NIOSH established the Center for Occupational Robotics Research.

“Robots are particularly beneficial in sectors with challenging labor conditions,” G. Scott Earnest, associate director of the NIOSH Office of Construction Safety and Health, said during a Dec. 1 webinar hosted by the agency. “The higher number of work-related injuries and illnesses in construction is an important factor. 

“Robots can handle heavy loads, perform dangerous or dirty work at inaccessible locations and in locations requiring awkward postures.”

Jacob Carr, program director at the Center for Occupational Robotics Research, said researchers want to increase understanding of human-robot interactions.

NIOSH also is interested in providing guidance on working safely with robots, and improving the ability to identify and track injuries and fatalities involving them.

Carr gave various examples of CORR research, including one virtual reality study investigating the extent to which drones may distract construction workers at height. Another study, which Carr said is applicable to the construction industry, is looking at worker safety and trust when working alongside autonomous industrial mobile robots.

“The whole idea here,” he said, “is if you have workers and robots moving around in the same environment, how does that affect the behavior of the workers, the perception of the workers, and the trust that they’re able to place into these robots and the trust that they have that they’ll be safe as these different sorts of interactions occur?”

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