Safety First: Robot palletizer safety

by Rob Vomiero

Robot palletizing systems bring speed, efficiency and precision to palletizing operations, helping warehouses and distribution centres respond to steadily growing demand.

Robert Vomiero provides consulting services for Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS).

These systems can also help prevent repetitive strain and sprain injuries that might occur if the work were still being done manually. But this doesn’t mean robot palletizers are hazard-free.

Any process change, such as introducing a robot palletizer, has the potential to introduce new hazards. These may include:

  • impact and crushing hazards from contact with robotic arms;
  • impact hazards from the uncontrolled release/ejection of a box or other product by palletizer robots;
  • impact hazards associated with palletized products tipping or falling over;
  • impact, entanglement and burn hazards associated with stretch wrapping systems;
  • entanglement and drawing-in hazards associated with pallet conveyors;
  • impact, crushing and shear hazards during conveyance of loaded pallets.

The potential injuries resulting from these hazards could be life altering or fatal. Your workplace can avoid them by building safety into the robot palletizing system from the beginning.

This palletizing robot works at the Giant Tiger distribution centre in Johnstown, Ontario.

Consider these 10 steps

1. Think forward. Choose a robot palletizer or palletizer system with the capabilities you require now and in the future. Develop a checklist before the purchase to ensure the equipment meets requirements, and complies with legislative and industry standards (e.g. CSA, ANSI).

2. Understand your responsibilities as an employer under occupational health and safety legislation. As the end user, you are ultimately responsible for the safety of your people. Also, ensure any other regulatory requirements are met (e.g. in Ontario a Pre-Start Health and Safety Review must be conducted).

3. Understand exactly what you need from the robot palletizer system integrator. Select a system integrator who is experienced in the design, build and installation of robotic palletizer systems, and has expertise in integrating and implementing all elements of these systems (e.g. pallet de-stackers, pallet conveyors, palletizing robot, pallet stretch-wrappers, etc.).

4. Ensure the integrator implements a risk assessment process early in the design phase so that all tasks and hazards associated with the equipment are identified and the appropriate risk-reduction measures are put in place. Risk assessments enable workplaces to develop a safeguarding strategy that takes all job functions into consideration and meets legislative requirements and applicable standards. These assessments are a mandatory requirement of Canada’s safeguarding standard (CSA Z432-16, Safeguarding of machinery) and robotics standard (CSA-Z434-14, Industrial robots and robot systems).

5. Involve end users. The system integrator knows the equipment, but as the end user you know your process and operational needs. Ensure that key internal stakeholders, including equipment operators, engineering, health and safety, maintenance, quality assurance, etc., are involved in the risk assessment process. No one is an expert on everything, but people can contribute their particular expertise.

6. Include ergonomics in your safety considerations. Designing a robot palletizer system using sound ergonomic principles will reduce the risk of MSD (musculoskeletal disorder) injuries. Keep in mind factors such as e-stop locations within arm’s length of operator working positions, operator product load conveyor height, and reach dimensions, etc.

7. Ensure the integrator verifies and validates the palletizer system’s safety requirements and protective measures, and that they are documented in accordance with CSA Z434-14. These include ensuring correct safeguarding, appropriate functional safety performance of safety-related systems, and appropriate space and clearance requirements within the robot cell.

8. Integrate your palletizer safety strategy into your overall safety program, which should centre on policies and procedures, including a solid lockout/tagout procedure, and worker training.

9. Provide operators, maintenance and other key stakeholders with comprehensive training on equipment hazards, safety features, safe operation, safe entry into the robot cell, and lockout-tagout. People who do not fully understand the equipment, its hazards, and related safety precautions are often the ones who start taking shortcuts.

10. Periodically review safety performance and act on any shortcomings and opportunities for improvement that have been noted since the equipment was introduced. Could you apply improvements made to your robot palletizer system to your overall machine safety program?

Introducing a new robot palletizer system is a heady moment for any workplace. Following these steps will help you realize the productivity, quality and competitiveness gains that your new system offers, all while minimizing the risk of injury to your workers