Infectious Control for Highly Automated Workplaces

Robotics and computer automation are now employed in nearly every industrial sector to do some of the most unsafe, repetitive, and unpleasant tasks.  The role of computer-automated equipment and robotics varies greatly by application and level of human collaboration, but while their use is to reduce specific risks to humans, there are potential hazards associated with their use.

These hazards exist during normal operation, programming, maintenance, testing, inspection and cleaning. Reported accidents and incidents to employees include tripping, crushing, trapping, electrocution, burns from hydraulic fluids, arc flash and metal spatter, and lacerations from highly pressurized cutting streams or the release of parts.

The causes of incidents and accidents in highly automated industrial operations are somewhat unique yet intrinsic to the use of computerized and robotic equipment:

  • Human Errors in the programming, design, installation, and on-site set-up and activation
  • Control Errors within the control systems or software errors
  • Unauthorized Access or entry into a system’s or robot’s safeguarded area
  • Mechanical Failures including cumulative mechanical failure
  • Power Systems malfunctions and electrical overloads

Added to this are Environmental Sources which are typically electromagnetic or radio-frequency interference (transient signals) that disrupt the control systems and could affect robotic operation, increasing the potential for injury to people working in the area. However, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic, environmental sources now includes basic human interaction, requiring additional steps for infectious control.  Controlling this hazard should be added—at least temporarily—to a Job Hazard Analysis for each piece of equipment.

Many things should be considered including the number of people using the equipment or are working in collaboration with the robotic systems.  This will determine the frequency of cleaning and the areas to be cleaned.  Studies have found that the virus can last two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. While typical protocols for the disinfection of hand-touched surface areas should be followed, the manufacturer’s recommendations for cleaning should be followed to avoid accidental damage to control panels, sensors, etc. It is recommended that the manufacturer be contacted to determine what type of disinfectant can be used on the equipment.

While the equipment manufacturers recommendations for cleaning should always be followed. Here are a few tips for conducting COVID-19 surface cleaning:

  1. All solutions of detergents or disinfectants must be prepared in a clean, dry container.
  2. All solutions must be prepared fresh daily with tap water and at the proper mixture for the dilution (for example, a 10 percent bleach dilution is one-part concentrated bleach to nine parts water).
  3. Do not use spray bottles when cleaning surfaces. Spraying surfaces may cause aerosols.
  4. Containers that dispense liquid can be used to apply disinfectants to surfaces, or disinfectants can be poured gently onto cleaning cloths to clean surfaces.
  5. EPA-registered disinfectants should be used. Examples include bleach, Conflikt, and CaviCide. 
  6. Pre-mixed “ready-to-use” disinfectant solutions or wipes may also be used. Examples include EZKILL Disinfectant Wipes, CaviWipes, and CiDecon Plus Wipes.

Because the virus is spread through air-borne droplets and can remain airborne for several hours, areas around the equipment should be cleaned as well following generally accepted practices for surfaces with minimal hand-contact, such as floors, windowsills, walls and ceilings.

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The Wakefield Firm helps employers address the hazards associated with highly automated and technologically advanced work environments.

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