A few years ago, I heard someone say, “If you’re on-site, you’re in danger.” That’s a simple statement that really stuck with me.
Each day, our teams work in conditions and environments that are home to countless safety threats. To get everyone home safely, we must ensure that all team members understand these threats and act accordingly. Since my career is focused on introducing robotics to the inspection industry, I want to illustrate how robots can reduce safety risks.
The Safety Pyramid
A well known safety concept is dubbed the safety pyramid. I was first presented this diagram 20 years ago in one of my first safety briefs. This became a frequent safety talking point as I progressed through the industry. The safety pyramid is turning 90 this year and I think we can all agree that it is as true and as intuitive as ever.
If you haven’t seen the safety pyramid before, the basic concept is this:
At the base of the pyramid lies “unsafe acts,” which is basically a foundational data set of 300,000 risky behaviors or events.
These 300,000 acts will statistically result in 3,000 near misses (almost accidents), and 300 recordable injuries requiring first aid. Moving higher up the pyramid, the consequences become less frequent but more harmful. Thirty injuries will be serious and/or may result in lost time. At the top of the pyramid is one fatality.
I see the cold math of the safety pyramid as an excellent reference for how automation can “bend the curve” and create measurably better safety outcomes.
As an example, let’s consider an elevated inspection. The traditional approach would involve scaffolding assembly/removal, and an extended period of inspecting with multiple crew members working at dangerous heights.
So how many unsafe acts are we eliminating by utilizing robotics to keep our teams almost entirely on the ground? For almost any piece of elevated work, the scaffolding install alone would probably encompass far more dangerous acts than the entirety of a robotic inspection. Safety equipment is better than ever, but even the best harnesses and lanyards can suffer from operator related errors. Robotics has the potential to change our mindset from training and enforcement to avoid these risks entirely.
With careful planning and better tools, we can dramatically reduce the minor violations that make up the bottom of the pyramid, dramatically offsetting the occurrence of high-level negative outcomes.
Top Occupational Hazards
Typically, safety meetings cover the same types of work, for good reason. Falls, confined space entry, and vehicular accidents result in the greatest occurrence of safety incidents, year after year. Let's break this down and look at these elements in the context of robotics:
Driving to the site and driving onsite comes with inherent risks in terms of property damage and injuries. By implementing robotics, there is potential to reduce the number of people and vehicles entering a site on a given day. In most cases, operators will require fewer days on site than a conventional inspection team.
Confined space entry is another common hazard across industries. Previously, inspectors needed to access tight and unstable areas, exposing themselves to chemicals, heat, collapse, and explosions. I’ve been fortunate to witness tremendous growth in the capabilities of the drone and crawler space. It’s now easy to collect high definition visuals and perform a variety of inspections without entering an asset. Data can even be collected remotely from tank floors!
The size of the equipment, and the height of the many interconnected systems in a refinery, results in many tasks being performed at elevation. While harnesses, railings, and training have all improved over the years, this still remains a common and high-risk activity. This is another application for drone and crawler robotics that allows for remote inspection.
Keeping our crews and sites safe is a never ending process. We should always be focused on finding ways to reduce hazard exposure and reduce “unsafe acts” that will inevitably lead to a serious event. If we continue deploying robotic field technology, we can help reduce the number of accidents at industrial plants.