Machine & Operator Safety
Get smarter about safety in manufacturing plants
A look at new approaches that can be used to automate safety in manufacturing plants
September 10, 2021 by Treena Hein
While automation has been transforming manufacturing plants for decades, automation of safety is now coming into its own.
By automating paper-based and manual safety-related processes using a variety of technologies and approaches, workers in plants are much better protected. And, because they save time, these automated approaches also boost plant productivity. Here are the current broad trends in safety automation, along with a glance to new technologies and future outlook, from some leading industry experts.
Integration of safety
Safety in manufacturing used to be focused on manual “point solutions,” where for example, the safety of each machine is handled separately, explains Pierre Van Neste, global director of sales, plant and personnel safety and risk reduction software at Honeywell Process Solutions.
“Individual machines, safety training, personal protective equipment, etc. – handling these things individually is inefficient and involves silos of data that are disconnected, so it’s very difficult to access and analyze the data,” he says. “Now it’s becoming common practice to have most or all aspects of worker safety integrated with overall plant digitization. The growth in understanding of the power of integrated solutions has been slow across manufacturing, but it’s coming along now.”
Chris Morgan and Eric Haapamaki, applications engineers at Sudbury, Ontario-based Ionic Mechatronics, are also seeing increasing uptake of integrated safety solutions. “We’ve been doing presentations about this for over 10 years,” says Haapamaki, “and now, safety analysis and implementation of integrated systems is 25 percent of our business.”
Van Neste says how safety can be integrated with equipment assets, workforce management and site security. Employee badges (employing radio-frequency identification and/or other technologies) help ensure only authorized personnel are on site, but the integrated system also validates that the correct individuals are “safe” to work in a given area of the plant.
“If the required certification is not up-to-date for a particular worker, the system will simply not allow entry,” Van Neste says. “Before such a system is put in place, there was either an inefficient paper-based system and/ or siloed computer records where, for example, the dates for which given employees needed to do recertification courses were kept, and hopefully it was all accurate.”
It has also been left to workers to do proper lockout before approaching a machine, which has led to solutions to automate the process. “From my observations over the years, proper lockout takes time and it’s very rare that all procedures are followed, such as checking that there is no voltage running to that machine,” Morgan says. “Everyone is relying on the worker to do things correctly, and we know that if procedures take a lot of time, things will get skipped even if there is a safety risk. If you leave a situation to procedure, an accident will happen at some point.”
Ionic now offers an automated remote lockout system called SafeBox where a worker or supervisor requests entry into a given area and the system does the lockout, saving time and ensuring better safety.
Another way safety is being automated involves virtual reality (VR) technology, explains James Findlay, solution consultant at Rockwell Automation.
“We offer several VR systems such as Vuforia with our partner PTC that allow new workers and contract workers to understand plant layout and safety hazards before they arrive onsite,” he explains.
“This technology has been used in aerospace industries for years and it’s starting to come into other sectors. Then, when workers are onsite, we can switch to an augmented reality system, where you can have a module, for example, where a worker who’s been there for years can virtually show a new worker in the real environment of the plant how to use a machine and do the overall job in the most safe and productive way.”
“An automated system can monitor for falls [and] allow workers to alert the system quickly and easily by pressing a panic button,” says Van Neste.
Integrated systems for contractor management also provide significant safety and efficiency value. “The contractor ahead of time shows that the workers who will arrive have the required certifications and access,” Van Neste says. “The work permit is requested ahead of time, so it’s ready when the workers arrive.” This system also provides a significant bonus, he adds, of being able to track “time on tool.” That is – geo-location is used to verify that the contractor was working at the correct machine, and, at inspection, that the inspector was present.
Accounting for all workers at an emergency muster point is another situation where safety is being automated (and greatly enhanced) through integration with a digitized site management system.
Without such a system, a designated person must manually record who is or is not at their designated meeting place. Now, digital badge systems can account for everyone automatically and can immediately locate anyone not present, guide workers to a safe zone, and so on.
“It also provides that critical situational awareness for emergency operations,” says Van Neste. “Supervisors not on site can understand what is happening and make the best decisions. Without this, it can be very dangerous, for example, to send someone to try and find a worker who has not reported, and there have been many cases where workers get really frightened and leave the site but don’t tell anyone they’ve gone.” He adds that there should be a cloud-based component to data management because on-site computing power could be affected by the emergency.
Technology keeping pace
Yet another area of safety automation is the use of IoT and sensors that prevent dangerous situations in the first place. “An example in a paper plant would be speed monitoring on a paper winder,” says Morgan. “Changing the speed has traditionally been done by a worker with a selector switch but with automated speed monitoring on the drive, the winder is automatically slowed or stopped if it’s going too fast.”
Morgan and Haapamaki also point to new radar-based sensors now available that are not affected by dust, smoke, fluid spray and other airborne materials the way traditional light/laser sensors are affected. Haapamaki adds that if a given sensor system produces a lot of false trips, employers will simply rip it out.
And different types of worker-focused sensors are already in use. The badges offered by Honeywell, for example, automatically alert spoton personnel when a worker hasn’t moved for a given period of time or has fallen. “In today’s world, we have an increasing number of lone worker situations,” adds Van Neste, “and an automated system can monitor for things like falls but also allow workers to alert the system quickly and easily by pressing a panic button.”
Tech also already exists, he says, to detect if a worker has donned all the protective equipment required, and developments related to ergonomics are coming (for example, alerting workers when they aren’t lifting an item properly). Biometrics are also already included in some automated workplace safety systems, which can detect if a worker’s heart rate has changed or stopped, for example. “These systems can respond to events such as a heart attack that happens to occur at work,” says Van Neste, “and therefore go beyond work-related safety issues.”
Looking forward, Findlay believes artificial intelligence (AI) systems will play a greater role in plant safety. Rockwell is working with PTC to develop AI systems that do predictive modelling, for example, to prevent spills, map out emergency responses and more.
In terms of what company leaders should do to start taking safety automation to the next level, Findlay notes that the amount of technology available can make the process feel overwhelming. “Contact a reputable company,” he advises, “one capable of doing a full analysis of your needs and that will create a suitable digital transformation plan.”
Treena Hein is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ontario.
This article appears in the September 2021 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.