Coming Home: New Technologies Can Help Increase Worker Safety

By Jordan Scott

Contract glaziers are tasked with installing heavy glass lites on the world’s tallest buildings, while workers in manufacturing and fabricating plants must handle unprocessed glass and complex machinery. The adoption of new technologies can increase a company’s bottom line through improved efficiency, but it can also make the jobsite safer for those in the industry. Robotics, automation, augmented reality and wearable technology are all making an impact on safety.

Machine Integration

Miika Äppelqvist, director of flat tempering at Glaston Finland Oy in Tampere, Finland, says that the move toward automation has had a major impact on worker safety.

“When I talk about the increase of automation, one of the things happening is the number of integrations between all machines is increasing,” he says. “Machines are integrating with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and automated glass loading is integrating with certain processing lines. That reduces the number of times workers even touch the glass. If we can reduce the number of times someone touches the glass we will
improve safety.”

Fabricators often handle primary glass or glass that has not yet been processed. Oversized glass can also pose problems if there aren’t enough workers helping to lift and handle it.

“I’ve traveled all around the world with different customers and I’ve seen some scary ways of loading,” says Äppelqvist. “Automatic loading, whether through robotics or integration, eliminates the [need for] workers to touch the glass. Glass is heavy so all kinds of long-term safety and health issues can arise.”

His company’s Assistant Pro software, for example, helps reduce the number of times a worker touches the glass. Many of the cutting line settings are programmed automatically and integrate with the ERP systems and the machines in the preprocessing line. Settings can be adjusted dynamically to create a safer environment.

In the past, fabricators that processed several types of glass may not have been able to find an automation solution that worked, but Äppelqvist says that now automation is at the phase where it can provide value for highly mixed production.

He adds that Glaston is also experimenting with augmented reality (AR) solutions to support its customers’ maintenance workers. For example, current AR technology allows Glaston to log in remotely to a customer’s operations and see what they see in the plant, as far as equipment and machinery. In the future, he believes AR could be used to bring safety issues to a worker’s attention more proactively.

Superhuman

While not designed for the glazing industry specifically, the Guardian XO Max (not related to Guardian Glass), a wearable exoskeleton from Sarcos Robotics in Salt Lake City, could be the future of lifting and handling.

“[It] is a full-body, fully powered industrial exoskeleton robotic system that has been designed to help keep our human workforce out of harm’s way and greatly improve safety and efficiency across a number of industries where heavy lifting or repetitive tasks are required,” says Kristi Martindale, executive vice president and CMO of Sarcos Robotics. “It combines the best of what humans can offer—intelligence, instinct and judgement—with the strength, power and endurance of robots to provide a cost-effective means of improving productivity and efficiency on jobsites while eliminating strain on workers’ bodies.”

Martindale says the company has focused on creating the exoskeleton to be all-electric, intuitive and easy-to-use for workers, such as fabricators and glaziers.

“The Guardian XO Max can allow the safe lifting, support and manipulation of objects up to 200 pounds without fatigue or strain for up to an eight-hour work session on one battery charge,” she says.

The exoskeleton’s entire weight, as well as the payload it is lifting, is transferred through the suit’s structure to the ground. This results in offloading 100 percent of the weight the worker is bearing, as well as the weight of the suit itself, reducing the operator’s metabolic output and reducing the risk of strain or injury.

The Guardian XO also integrates a suite of sensors that enable the robot to respond to human movements in milliseconds. This allows the worker to control the system intuitively in a way that leverages his or her instincts and reflexes and minimizes the need for human training, according to Martindale.

“We’ve also designed the Guardian XO Max to allow workers to get in and out of the suit in less than one minute for additional ease-of-use,” she says. “We believe the Guardian XO Max will provide fabricators and glaziers, among many other skilled workers, with super-human strength, improved productivity and efficiency and, while reducing the risk of injury on the job, increasing their quality of life and career longevity.”

Sensing More

Peripheral technologies such as sensors from Pillar Technologies in New York can also play a part in improving the jobsite environment for glaziers. With the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s recent silica rule and the need to mitigate exposure to silica, it’s important for glazing contractors to know how much silica is in the air.

Currently, a professional industrial hygienist should first collect an air sample from the jobsite to get tested by a laboratory to determine the amount of silica dust. Then measures can be taken to reduce the amount of silica dust forced into the air.

There aren’t any silica monitors currently available for jobsites, but according to Pillar Technologies CEO Alex Schwarzkopf, while the company’s sensors cannot differentiate silica from other dust particulates, it can bring awareness to overall dust particulate levels and monitor those levels throughout the project.

Glaziers should have their jobsite retested for silica after measures have been put in place to reduce exposure, but Pillar’s environment sensors can act as a guide during the process by revealing whether there is still a high particulate presence.

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