Workplace safety has undergone a radical transformation over the past 50 years. The United States pioneered workplace safety legislation, regulation, and monitoring by local, state, and federal government agencies. The steps taken by American companies and legislatures have been copied all over the world.
In 1954, Liberty Mutual established the Research Institute for Safety (RIS). The RIS created the Manual-Handling Task Guidelines, which provided detailed data regarding the maximum force and weight workers can exert without excessive fatigue. The Manual is regularly updated and a key document for workplace safety. The Manual also provided important evidentiary support for individuals seeking workers’ compensation.
In 1969, nine safety professionals formed the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, which pioneered safety certifications. Its designation remains one of the best among safety professionals still today. In 1971, the federal government followed when it formed the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Before OSHA, the federal government did not keep reliable statistics on workplace injuries or deaths.
In 1962, General Motors introduced the first robotic manufacturing facility, which rapidly spread to many other industries throughout the 60s and 70s. In the latter half of the 70s, the companies implemented independent robotic arms and dedicated arc welding robots. The introduction of robotics significantly reduced the number of factory accidents.
Workplace safety innovation continued through the 1980s with the RIS, which pioneered repetitive stress injuries. The RIS conducted a series of controlled experiments where participants performed simulated light assembly work. These experiments led to establishing guidelines for repetitive wrist motion resulting in the Musculoskeletal Stress Measurement Kit.
In 1990, the American Society of Safety Engineers was established to advocate for workplace safety, conduct research, and fund scholarships and fellowships. Ten years later, the ASSE joined forces with the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering to establish North American Occupational Safety and Health Week to increase attention on workplace safety.
In 2001 the RIS struck again and established the Quantitative Analysis Unit to research occupational injury epidemiology. The QAU releases an annual report which ranks the leading causes of disabling workplace injuries and illnesses.
In 2008, Linatex introduced the first collaborative robot (cobot), which provides general assistance to factory workers. The Cobot can and does interact with workers. Robotics use expanded in 2016 with the RoboGlove, which reduces worker stress and strain. The glove uses sensors and servos to increase the worker’s grip and lifting force.
Safety innovation involved more than robotics and workplace research, and it also included unprecedented data collection and transparency. Technology companies are applying their lessons to traditional companies to provide them with individualized data. Companies may now access data that warns them of possible safety trouble areas when workers are over-stressed so they can improve safety operations.
The GM RoboGlove is now getting expanded to include exoskeletons. Exoskeletons are mechanical devices that increase the users’ strength, lifting force, and other attributes to reduce fatigue and injury. The exoskeletons can reduce muscle load by up to 20% in some cases. The exoskeletons help improve worker efficiency while improving safety.