When most people think about the aerospace industry, they think about pilots, flight attendants, and possibly the engineers who design the remarkable vehicles that allow people to travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. And when people think about aerospace industry safety, they think first about the reliability of the planes themselves and the safety of their passengers.
Few think about the thousands of factory workers who make and assemble airplane parts, or about the complex and sometime hazardous machinery they use, which is itself designed by a different set of engineers. Because factory work is less publicly visible than air travel, the designers of factory equipment often receive less scrutiny than the designers of airplanes, even though both hold human lives in their hands.
At the Stoddard Firm, our manufacturing plant and spinal cord injury attorneys believe in holding accountable all those who endanger others for profit, whether in the sky or on the factory floor.
Georgia Has Become a Capital of Aerospace Manufacturing at the Cost of Worker Safety
Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. is the biggest manufacturing employer in Georgia, with a statewide workforce more than 10,000 strong. The company has deep roots here, owning a total of 3.2 million square feet of Savannah facilities, including the airport-adjacent production plant and headquarters that first made Gulfstream a household name.
Though it’s easily the biggest, Gulfstream is also far from the only airplane manufacturer in town. With over 800 separate aerospace companies in operation around the state, Georgia ranks as the second most attractive state in the nation for aerospace manufacturing, as of 2019.
“Most attractive” sounds like a good thing, and a booming aerospace industry is certainly preferable to mass unemployment, but it should be noted that this status has come with a cost. The aerospace industry’s historical preference for manufacturing in Georgia and other southern states is closely linked with an abundance of non-union labor — in other words, a potentially vulnerable workforce. As a result, safety is often not the consideration it should be.
Unfortunately, like most factory jobs, manufacturing airplanes can be very dangerous when proper safety precautions aren’t taken. In 2017, about 2.8 out of every 100 full-time aerospace plant workers were injured badly enough to require time off work. That number is down from the previous year, but because the timing coincides with major cuts to OSHA funding, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the accidents that are down, or just the thoroughness of the reporting.
The top causes of injury in aerospace plants are repetitive stress, overexertion, bending, and tripping/slipping, but the modernization of airplane manufacture is slowly changing the hazards workers have to contend with. In place of some of that lifting and exertion, aerospace plant employees are now in closer contact than ever with robotic machinery. As yet, OSHA has established no specific standards for the robotics industry, leaving robot-facing workers to act as guinea pigs for the safety of these untested workplace tools.
Safe Workspaces Follow the Hierarchy of Controls
The hierarchy of controls is a set of five workplace risk-reduction techniques ranked in descending order of effectiveness. It is widely accepted — though not necessarily adhered to —as a foundational principle of safety. In the U.S, it has been most famously interpreted and taught by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
According to the hierarchy of controls, the five methods of reducing risk are, from the top down:
- Elimination — Removing the hazard entirely. This method works best for hazards that are incidental to the work being performed. For example, if a jagged edge on a steel walkway poses a danger of snagging and cutting workers as they pass, the most effective solution is to resurface the area in question, removing the jagged edge.
- Substitution — Swapping the hazard for something less dangerous. This method works best for hazards that serve a purpose but are more dangerous than they need to be. For example, drilling is an important part of manufacturing an aircraft, but switching from manual drilling to automatic drilling may protect workers from repetitive stress injuries. When using substitution, however, it’s important to make sure the change doesn’t introduce unforeseen new dangers.
- Engineering Controls — Designing machines to be as safe as possible. This method should always be used to the greatest degree possible at the engineering level. For example, if a machine uses blades or high-speed belts, good engineering controls would minimize the potential contact between workers and these hazards, using precautions like fingerguards and automatic shutdown mechanisms.
- Administrative Controls — Creating and enforcing company policies that keep workers safe. This method should only be relied on to minimize hazards that a company has been unable to address through elimination or substitution, and that available machine models do not adequately address with engineering controls. However, administrative controls can also add an extra layer of protection when combined with good engineering controls. For example, manually disconnecting a machine from all power sources before cleaning it is essential if the machine does not have a proper shutdown/lockout feature, and still a good idea even if it does.
- Personal Protective Equipment — Wearable devices that protect an individual from environmental hazards. This method, while important, should be looked upon as a last line of protection. For example, steel-toed boots can protect against foot injuries, but if a worker’s foot is struck by a heavy object, it means a first-line safety measure has already failed, allowing that object to become precarious and fall in the first place.
The purpose of the hierarchy of controls is to focus more attention on the most effective ways of preventing accidents, rather than the least effective. Many manufacturers ignore the hierarchy, because it’s more convenient to blame workers for their injuries than make systemic changes to prevent them. However, even the most well-meaning employer can have difficulty providing a workplace that fully adheres to the hierarchy of controls, because so many of the most effective precautions need to be taken by third-party equipment designers and installers.
Obviously, engineering controls must be implemented by engineers, and some elimination and substitution measures happen (or should) at this level as well. A machine’s physical design might pose an unnecessary tripping hazard, for instance, or it might use a toxic chemical when a less toxic option is available.
If equipment producers don’t fully observe the top three tiers of the hierarchy, managers of aerospace plants and other factories aren’t able to keep their employees effectively safe.
Aerospace Is Becoming Increasingly Automated
Like many manufacturing facilities, aerospace plants are incorporating more and more advanced robotics to increase their efficiency. Once only used for the most imprecise of tasks, robots are now performing a wide range of sophisticated functions in airplane construction, from painting to riveting to creating noise-suppressing perforations.
The increased use of robots has prompted some understandable concerns about human job security, but it’s worth noting that there are some things human bodies should not be expected to do for hours a day, year after year — things that robots can handle much more safely. Responsibly introducing robots to take on physically demanding and repetitive tasks, like heavy lifting and drilling, can actually create an ergonomically safer workplace for humans.
On the other hand, rushing robots into the workplace as a cost-saving measure before the technology is ready can be a serious and immediate threat to employee wellbeing. The futuristic new paradigm of humans and robots working side-by-side to build airplanes still has plenty of bugs to be worked out, and robot manufacturers have a duty to make sure the learning curve does not cost lives. Any product, from a pack of gum on a grocery store shelf to a cutting-edge industrial robot sold only to aerospace plants, should be determined safe before it goes to market, not after.
Faulty Robots Can Cause More Safety Problems Than They Solve
The potential for industrial robots to cause injuries instead of preventing them isn’t just science fiction-inspired speculation and technophobia; it’s a reality that manufacturing employees are already facing, in the aerospace industry and beyond.
In 2019, Boeing attempted to heavily automate the production of its 777 and 777X jetliners. Its new robots, purchased from Kuka Systems, were supposed to be able to insert the 60,000 rivets needed for each aircraft, but the robots’ inability to work in sync with each other ended up creating even more work for Boeing’s human employees. Overtime skyrocketed, and some jets reportedly left the factory unfinished.
Thankfully, this particular alleged blunder did not result in any known deaths, and Boeing was eventually able to implement a more effective balance of partial automation, using different robots from Electroimpact Inc. to handle the most demanding parts of the work. Other robotic failures have had more permanent consequences.
In 2017, a Michigan man sued several robotics companies and an installation company after a robot allegedly killed his wife in the Ventra Ionia auto parts plant where she worked. According to the suit, the robot left its designated section and entered the section where the plaintiff’s wife, a journeyman maintenance technician, was adjusting a different machine. The robot allegedly took her by surprise, attempted to load a hitch assembly into a fixture that was already full, and crushed her skull in the process. One of the companies named in the suit for its role in designing the robot was FANUC, which also supplies industrial robots to the aerospace industry.
NIOSH, the same safety organization that provides definitive interpretations of the hierarchy of controls, warns that robot-related deaths and injuries are still difficult to track for statistical purposes, because they don’t have classification codes of their own yet. This makes it easier for similar accidents to repeat themselves without the pattern being noticed.
In spite of the lack of coding and regulation, OSHA has thus far recognized four different categories of industrial robot accidents:
- Impact accidents — In which a moving robotic part strikes a human body part
- Crushing/trapping accidents — In which a human body part becomes trapped between moving robotic parts, or between a moving robotic part and a stationary object
- Mechanical part accidents — In which mechanical parts fail, leading to human injury, such as a gripper mechanism losing traction and dropping an object on top of a worker
- Other accidents — These include arc flashes, metal spatter, electromagnetic or radio interference, and ruptures of high-pressure lines
The death in the Ventra Ionia plant would qualify as a crushing accident, as would most of the incidents NIOSH identified in its brief analysis of the under-documented dangers of industrial robots. Most of these cases involved some alleged user error, BUT the accidents could also be traced to a failure of engineering controls. Specifically, several of the injured or killed workers placed their appendages near the robots’ “risk zones.” The robots were equipped with labels warning against this, but not with shutdown sensors or any other safety features that could stop them from causing death or injury if a worker got too close. Said differently, the manufacturer of the robot machine relied on lower level controls (warnings and training) instead of using the hierarchy which requires engineering controls that shut down the robot system if a workers gets too close.
The Stoddard Firm Holds Equipment Designers and Installation Companies Accountable
No matter how fascinating or innovative a new technology may be, there’s no excuse for a developer to put users in danger – that includes industrial robotics engineers and the aerospace employees who must work with their creations. If a robot is going to be sold for use in workplaces, it should be designed with the hierarchy of controls in mind. That means anticipating potential dangers and minimizing them to the greatest degree possible at the engineering level, before resorting to warning labels and separate safety equipment to keep workers safe.
If you’ve been injured or lost a loved on to an industrial robot accident in an aerospace plant, and you believe the robot malfunctioned or was poorly designed for safety, The Stoddard Firm can help. We know these cases well. Reach out today at 678-RESULT or through our online chat function for a free consultation.