Why ‘duty of care’ is vital when adopting automation

27 Jun 2024

Thomas Deegan, senior health and safety consultant and program manager at EHS Mackin. Image: Marie Keating

Thomas Deegan of Mackin EHS discusses the Irish sectors that are embracing robotics, the importance of a proactive approach to risk and the danger of staff bypassing safety procedures when they’re under pressure.

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Automation comes in all shapes and sizes, from automated tasks on a computer to advanced robots working in warehouses, but progress can bring its own challenges.

While making a site more automated can improve productivity for a business, there are various health and safety precautions to consider, especially in scenarios where human staff are working with automated machines. Aside from technical challenges and legal risks, there can also be dangerous consequences for staff if machines are not brought onto a site properly.

One man who tries to help organisations with these challenges is Thomas Deegan, a senior health and safety consultant and programme manager with Cork-based Mackin EHS. Deegan works with businesses of various sizes, but says his focus is with clients in the Big Tech, logistics and luxury automotive sectors.

“My job is to work with clients on an ongoing basis to help them minimise the risk posed by the hazards in their workplace and also to interpret the legal requirements imposed on them by the various laws in the EMEA region,” Deegan said.

Deegan has witnessed various developments in automation over the years and has seen what it takes to implement robotics systems effectively. He has also seen where businesses cut corners in safety and the risks this can present.

Growing automation in Ireland

As Deegan pointed out to SiliconRepublic.com, automation is not a new concept for businesses in Ireland.

For example, the manufacturing industry “does utilise and has utilised automation a lot,” he said. “Everyone knows this and it’s been the case for a long time.”

From his experience, the sectors that are starting to truly embrace automation are the logistics and automotive sectors – Deegan believes that these types of businesses are going to be “heavily invested” in automation in the near future.

“Some examples you can see in relation to logistics is the use of unmanned forklifts, rather than having a manned forklift working in a warehouse or conveyor belt systems, bringing the goods directly from the truck straight up to the rack. And then a robotic crane just picks it up and brings it to the correct role,” Deegan said. “That absolutely unmanned warehousing is something I come across a lot.

“And they work a lot with robotics that have cybernetic ability, in that they take in a lot of information from their environment and use feedback loops and control systems to make active decisions on what they are actually going to do based on the environmental input.”

Deegan said this feedback loop is crucial for bringing robotics onto a site. This is where the system’s output is “fed back into its inputs to regulate its behaviour”.

“This loop then ensures that the robot can actually adjust their actions based on the outcomes they produce, leading to a more accurate and adaptive behaviour,” he said. “An easy example of this would be the unmanned forklifts.

“If they’re operating in the same area as people, if they identify that there’s a person in front of them, they will stop and then identify if there’s room to go around this person and re-evaluate their route. Rather than the old-school robots which would just go through something.”

There have been some interesting examples in Ireland of companies using robots as a way to address labour shortages. One example is pharma distributor United Drug, which partnered with Locus Robotics to bring 21 robots to its Dublin distribution centre in order to boost productivity.

Keeping risk in mind

Deegan said his role is very hands on, with clients contacting him with problems and Deegan working directly with teams to find a solution. From his experience, a key concern he has around automation is that companies will introduce automated robotics into a workplace “without really understanding the potential hazards that they could pose”.

“The robots are very well-programmed machines, but they are not immune to malfunction,” Deegan said. “And human error can occur in that if people don’t work safely when working around or operating these robots. No matter how advanced technology gets, there’s three simple words that I always come back to – duty of care.

“Robotics is simply the addition of new equipment to the business. And as with all equipment, we must risk assess the equipment to identify any new hazards that they may pose in the workplace and implement the appropriate control measures.”

Deegan said addressing risks requires a proactive approach, where risks are assessed and identified before they occur. Unfortunately, Deegan said many businesses tend to move towards a more “reactive” approach when implementing new equipment.

“Hindsight has 20/20 vision and they’ll put in this new piece of kit and then not realise fully how it works,” Deegan said. “And someone gets injured and then they’ll invest the money into putting in the control measures.”

Deegan mentioned concerns around self-driving cars too, noting that they’re “not immune to malfunction” and that it is important that the right regulation is in place to ensure that “quality and safety precautions are taken with this new technology”.

“I think people are very, very quick to immediately put their trust into these machines,” Deegan said. “But we need to always be aware that while they’re very well programmed and a huge amount of safety precautions and quality checks have to be done before they can put on the market … there’ll always be the next gen where they say, oh, they fixed this bug and they fixed that bug.

“These bugs, when you’re traveling 120 kilometres [an hour] down the road, can be very serious.”

The future risks of automation

From Deegan’s experience, the manufacturing, logistics and automotive sectors in Ireland are the ones that will focus the most on automation in the future – with manufacturing logistics and luxury automotives being the ones currently investing heavily in this technology.

While this is done to improve productivity, Deegan said there can be controversy around these developments as it can also be a way for these businesses to reduce their labour costs massively.

“Even if you have one or two humans on site to make sure that everything’s going efficiently, you’re removing 90pc of the labour,” Deegan said. “It’s one of those things that unfortunately, we’ve seen it over and over again in the past, that technology does remove jobs. But also, new jobs come out of that technology.”

Deegan still has concerns about technology such as robotics being implemented in an unsafe way, particularly in the manufacturing industry.

“This is because there is such a huge emphasis on productivity, if this mindset of ‘time is money’, and if you need to stop operations for even one minute, this will often be logged as a ‘time lost’ incident.

“Due to this, I’ve actually seen in that industry, automated systems being implemented, which allow for safety protocols to be bypassed to prevent further time being lost,” he said. “That’s a really big concern of mine that I have highlighted multiple times over that. Safety precautions are there for a reason.

“But you see, it won’t be in any written document, but the staff, in my experience, will be under such pressure to meet certain timelines in relation to productivity that they will actually themselves bypass certain things.”

One example Deegan has witnessed first-hand involves a procedure known as ‘lock-out, tag-out, try-out’. This involves switching off a machine by putting a padlock through a hook, putting a tag on it to say why it’s locked out, and finally ‘trying out’ the machine to see if there’s any stored energy before it is used.

“I’ve actually seen systems where people have this in place, but then if you go to the computer in the same area and press certain buttons, you can bypass it,” Deegan said. “And that was a huge, huge red flag for me because if someone’s working in there and you have a new start and they walk by and say ‘oh, that’s not working’ and press the button, it’s going to crush someone.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic