The aerospace industry has begun paying more attention to the hazards of humans working closely with hazardous chemicals.
In “Erin Brockovich,” the Hollywood box office hit from 2000 starring Julia Roberts, the title character heroically fights to help win a lawsuit for residents of a California city affected by groundwater contamination. While many theatergoers saw the movie, which was based on real events, they probably wouldn’t remember that the chemical causing the widespread cancer cases was hexavalent chromium.
Of course, the dangers for humans working with and around hazardous chemicals have long been known. And, unfortunately, for far too long, unsafe conditions in the American workplace weren’t taken as seriously as they should have been. In recent years, that has been changing — and to illustrate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released new recommended guidelines for human exposure to hexavalent chromium. As highlighted in “Erin Brockovich,” hexavalent chromium, or Cr(VI), is a large group of chemicals, often produced in industrial workspaces, that has been known to cause a variety of ailments in humans, including lung cancer.
Hexavalent chromium dangers in aerospace industry
As documented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), painting and sanding tasks frequently performed in the aerospace industry can pose serious risks for humans from exposure to hexavalent chromium. Vulnerability to respiratory problems caused by inhalation of hexavalent chromium is significant, mostly due to potential damage to the lungs and airways — and the main reason for the frequency of exposure is because chromium is commonly added to the paints used for airplane parts.
Thankfully, the aerospace industry has begun paying more attention to this very serious matter, creating a heightened awareness of the hazards of working closely with these types of chemicals. But, in addition to growing awareness and regulatory protections, there are further ways to keep humans safely away from these and other hazardous substances — and robots are an important part of the equation.
Robots can keep humans from needing to work directly with these and other hazardous chemicals. One of the strongest arguments for robots, in general, is their ability to shield humans from working in the types of dull, dirty and dangerous occupations that often compromise worker safety.
Avoiding other workplace injuries
In addition to hexavalent chromium exposure, there are further risks for workers in the aerospace painting industry. For instance, when jet-engine inlets are manually recoated, the work often requires maintenance workers to wear protective suits and respirators and spend hundreds of hours crawling around on their hands and knees.
It’s nearly impossible, under these conditions, to manually apply the coatings at consistent speeds and thicknesses. Due to labor conditions in these cramped, tight spaces, the U.S. Air Force has reported a significant number of shoulder injuries related to this work. In these conditions, robots can achieve better results while reducing or eliminating these types of worker injuries.
To this point, a 2022 study by the National Library of Medicine found that the use of robots for repetitive site work can reduce unsafe, monotonous tasks by 25-90%, lowering human exposure to hazardous situations by an average of 72%.
How do they do it? One effective strategy is teleoperation, which allows for remote control of robots from safe distances, keeping humans away from injury, or exposure to chemical hazards.
Implementing the right robot, the right way
To minimize human exposure to danger while also gaining the benefit of potential cost-savings, it’s important to utilize and install the right robot, and with the correct implementation.
It’s critical to work with a robotic integrator affiliated with the Robotic Industry Association (RIA) who can help choose which kind of robot is right for the task. In addition, any robotic set-up should have a risk assessment performed to ensure that RIA standards are met.
Among the ways to meet these standards is by using extra sensors, emergency stop buttons, and scanners that detect human presence in unsafe areas, and by fencing off robot work areas. These are just a few of the measures that a compliant robot integrator might set up and test for safety.
Creating a safe workplace culture
At the end of “Erin Brockovich,” the judge rules against the energy company that polluted the groundwater, and a hefty settlement is won for Erin’s side. The movie implies that the company had a culture of not caring about human health, which led to their indifferent handling of hexavalent chromium and a subsequent rise in cancer cases.
Creating a safe workplace in the aerospace industry that protects humans from the effects of this chemical, and other occupational dangers, is easier to implement with the right safety solutions in place. These include robot workers, which never get cancer, respiratory ailments or shoulder injuries. Ultimately, they simply cannot get sick or injured.
There is a mistaken belief among some that robot installations take jobs away from people. Instead, in the aerospace industry, these are often the same personnel who are then retrained to load, run, clean up and maintain the new robots. Consequently, human workers enjoy a safer working environment while simultaneously adding valuable technical skills to their resumes.
They’re robots — and they’re here to help humans promote a safer workplace — a concept that Erin Brockovich would most likely support.
About the Author
Chris Kolb is vice president of sales at Aerobotix, an innovative leader in robotic solutions for the aerospace and defense industries. Headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, the company specializes in the creation of cutting-edge automated robotic solutions for high-value, high-precision components, aircraft and vehicles.