Industry 4.0 seeks to improve production efficiency, flexibility and quality. It achieves this by leveraging automation, computerization, interconnectivity and real-time monitoring. Sustainability pressures, including waste reduction and a switch to alternate environmentally friendly materials, have also promoted this revolution.
Efficient production processes allow businesses to adapt business practices to be customer focused and more agile to changing demand. This transition sees the increasing adoption of intelligent systems that control and monitor automated manufacturing processes and their environment.
One consequence of adjusting production processes is changing working practices that affect occupational health and safety. As a result, new risks are emerging, and the risk levels of existing hazards are shifting. Therefore, staying on top of the impact is essential for businesses to maintain existing risks at acceptable levels and ensure that novel risks are recognized, assessed and managed.
One of the more apparent changes for Industry 4.0 is robotic systems replacing manual production processes. Robots can perform repetitive tasks faster, more accurately, and more consistently than human operatives. Consequently, jobs are less constrained by physical size, muscle strength, mobility and age. In addition, common disabilities such as physical limitations or visual impairment will no longer be a barrier to working in manufacturing environments.
An added benefit, mainly if the procedure involves handling hazardous materials or working in a dangerous environment, is that these eliminate the manual production processes' occupational health and safety risks when robots take over the tasks.
There is also the expectation that workers will spend less time on recurring tasks and more on the creative, innovative value-added activities that do not lend themselves to process automation. This change reduces risks around the long-term physical effects such as repetitive strain injuries.
A critical change with Industry 4.0 is the availability and leverage of information across processes. Data is gathered at all points of the functions and used to monitor, control and improve implementation. As a result, real-time control drives quality improvements through near immediate identification and automated rectification of production issues affecting product quality as part of the manufacturing process. In addition, the availability of information has the benefit of providing complete transparency of the entire production process to all stakeholders.
These changes have the side effect of reducing the pressures of hierarchical organizational structures where siloed information can inadvertently hide issues or create unnecessary bottlenecks. For example, open access information means management does not need to chase employees for progress statistics or production metrics. Instead, information consumers can access the data they require at the source using automated systems.
Automation technologies typically create safer working environments by removing humans from hazardous environments. They also promote inclusivity by replacing tasks requiring physical strength or agility with less labor-intensive computer-based monitoring-type activities. This move from physical to knowledge-based working replaces workplace issues such as repetitive movements with more cerebral decentralized decision-making stresses.
An additional benefit of Industry 4.0 is the remote equipment monitoring technology offers worker health monitoring capabilities. Measurement of health factors such as heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, breathing rates and blood oxygen levels can all provide early warning of issues affecting employee health. These issues could be unnoticed exposure to hazardous materials or the effects of unsafe working conditions.
Such technology helps enable lone working where current working practices make this impractical or impossible by providing constant monitoring and automated alerting at the first sign of a problem. Such technology also can provide a more reliable solution to standard practices where there is a reliance on workers monitoring each other for health issues. Automated remote monitoring does not get distracted under high-stress situations or miss the early, often imperceptible signs of problems. It can detect the presence of hazardous materials before they are discernible to the human senses.
New safety risks
However, robots and other automated machinery create a new set of risks associated with human-machine interactions. They may be due to humans simply being in proximity to moving parts or, more specifically, humans interacting with the robots for activities such as routine maintenance, repairs or replenishment.
Risks are not restricted to the manufacturing processes either. Information acquisition and management processes can create risks equally as significant as those produced by a material handling process. For example, data errors in monitoring equipment usage can have consequences on maintenance decisions, resulting in failures when routine maintenance is scheduled incorrectly as a consequence. The inability to capture a data item correctly can halt production or create a safety-related hazard.
There can also be indirect risks associated with working in a highly automated environment. Direct ways of working can put mental pressures on workers, such as anxiety, psychosocial stresses, or psychological strains. For example, leaner workforces with reduced inter-human interactions and complex decision-making anxiety can affect health. In addition, employees will be under more significant pressure to acquire and maintain knowledge through continuous professional development.
Consequently, there is an expectation that Industry 4.0 workplace environments will see a reduced rate of work-related physical injuries but an increase in undesirable mental health effects.
Changes to working practices require organizations to recognize the potential to create new or exacerbate existing occupational risks. In addition, novel influences such as employee cultural and educational backgrounds will influence risk levels.
Occupational risk assessment and management
Businesses looking to evolve their production processes to embrace Industry 4.0 need to take a proactive approach to risk assessment. They cannot rely on reusing existing risk registers due to the novel risks that such changes can bring to their business.
However, this presents an opportunity to identify and manage risks during the design phase, adapting processes to eliminate hazards or reduce them to as low as reasonably practicable before implementation.
The techniques employed for the development and deployment of automated processes lend themselves to the inclusion of integrated risk identification and assessment processes. Risks can be analyzed during process development, allowing mitigation as part of the development process. Implementing changes so risks can be avoided, eliminated or reduced before deployment of an operation will be more cost-effective than changing a process after deployment, and unacceptable risks will materialize.
However, traditional risk assessments focus on physical effects. Such techniques lend themselves to well-understood risks such as equipment failure or exposure to hazardous substances. Yet where the impact is less well defined, such as psychological stress, it is far harder to identify and understand the risks and the consequences of occurrence. This requires the engagement of occupational health specialists and the active involvement of first-party stakeholders, including the employees themselves, to be fully effective.
Businesses can manage risks by reducing the likelihood that the risk will occur or reducing the impact of the risk. Ideally, organizations should explore both options. For example, consider the risk of a moving robot striking a worker standing nearby and causing physical harm, such as broken bones. Putting in controls so that the robot shuts down when a worker is close enough to be hit will reduce the likelihood that the risk will materialize. Similarly, designing the robot to control its speed or utilize energy absorbing materials can minimize the impact should the robot hit another object, such as a human. Of course, a perfect control will eliminate the risk, but all controls have failure modes that can occasionally render them ineffective.
Careful risk management is vital to mitigating risks using traditional controls combined with workplace policies and procedures and occupational training. The good news is that Industry 4.0 makes it easier to leverage advanced training techniques such as virtual reality-based simulation of production processes for immersive, hands-on training based on actual process data for maximum realism.
Adopting automated manufacturing technologies based on the Industry 4.0 philosophy has consequences for occupational health and safety. Traditional risks of physical harm associated with workers in manufacturing processes will reduce or disappear as robotic systems remove humans from hazardous situations.
However, the shift for workers to become innovative thinkers behind computer screens will create a new set of novel risks that do not usually appear in occupational health and safety risk registers. In addition, a move from physical to more psychological outcomes from occupational hazards will require a fresh approach to risk identification, assessment and management processes.
But Industry 4.0 offers businesses the opportunity to address occupational health and safety as part of initial process development, applying safe by design principles. Safety starts with comprehensive risk assessments that are then managed and maintained over the life of the production process.
About the author
Stephen Mash is a freelance editor from the U.K. He has over 30 years of practical experience in IT, aerospace, defense and communications sectors. He develops and assesses safety-critical and business-critical systems, providing risk management and cybersecurity consultancy. He has a bachelor’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering, and has been a Member of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (MIET) for over 20 years