Smart health and safety?

15th of November 2016
Smart health and safety?
Smart health and safety?

What are the health and safety benefits of using smart solutions for cleaning applications asks Ann Laffeaty? And in certain cases, can digital solutions actually pose a safety risk to the public?

Digital systems are revolutionising the cleaning industry. Smart solutions, automated machines and internet-based reporting platforms have had a major impact on increasing the efficiency of cleaning.

For example, a whole raft of new software solutions are improving productivity in the cleaning sector. These systems provide cost estimates, are capable of mapping out buildings and can keep track of staff movements which enables cleaning tasks to be carried out more efficiently.

Meanwhile, the advent of cleaning robots is helping to take away the stresses and strains of the job. These autonomous machines can clean more rapidly and for longer periods of time than humans. They also require no training; they never become tired and they have no objection to working nights.

But besides their productivity benefits, what is the impact of smart solutions on the health and safety of operatives - and even on the wider public? And is this impact always a positive one?

One obvious way in which automated systems are making the cleaning task safer is by removing much of the hard graft. The repetitive movement required when manually cleaning a floor or other surface can result in back pain and muscular aches. However, the same task becomes relatively effortless when a machine is used to fulfil the function in question.

Meanwhile, other breakthroughs have helped to relieve some of the cleaner’s physical burden. Mop-wringers have removed the need for manual wringing while lithium-ion battery technology has helped reduce the weight of machinery and lighten the cleaner’s load. And anything that reduces aches, pains and absenteeism among cleaning teams will have a positive impact on productivity.

Automatic chemical dosing systems are becoming more common today and these can also improve operator safety by taking human error out of the equation. Besides the risk of spillage that comes with ‘glug-glug’ methods of dosing, a too-strong solution could be hazardous to the cleaner’s health while a solution that is too weak might be ineffective at removing dirt and germs from surfaces. And in a healthcare environment, this might impact on the health and safety of patients.

Healthcare risks

The risk of cross-contamination in any healthcare setting is high. As a result, a number of firms have introduced digital products specifically designed to improve health and safety in hospitals and clinical environments. For example, Sodexo Healthcare recently launched a team of germ-zapping robots to help prevent the spread of healthcare-associated infections in hospitals.

Xenex Germ-Zapping Robots use UV light to disinfect surfaces such as bed rails, tray tables, bathroom handrails and toilet seats. Hospitals using Xenex robots in the US have reported reductions in infection rates of between 50 and 100 per cent.

A similar system has been developed by Blue Ocean Robotics. The company’s UV-Disinfection-Robot focuses UV light on infection ‘hotspots’ such as sinks, patient beds and handles. It can also be used in operating theatres, isolation rooms and clean rooms.

Cleaning robots in general are becoming increasingly common. But do they enhance safety in the environments where they work or do they have the potential to compromise it? Facilities management managing director of Servest Vince Treadgold is cautious on the topic.

“It is always wise to question the safety of new innovations, especially where people are involved,” he said. “However, analysing the basic safety systems of a facility and having the unrealistic expectation that a robot can think for itself are two very different things.

“Robots are simply machines that have been pre-programmed to respond to various stimuli. If a problem occurs – such as a supermarket shelf falling down near to where the robot is cleaning, for instance - the robot’s in-built sensor will detect it and the machine will change its course. The same can be said if a person cuts off its path; it will either stop in its tracks or find another route.

“However, the robot won’t shout out to let people know if a shelf falls down – it will simply bypass it. And it won’t say ‘excuse me’ to a person as it glides by. Robots can only offer the industry the opportunity to improve efficiency; people, however, add the human touch and will always be essential to operations.”

Low collision risk

He adds that robots tend to move at a slow walking pace which means that any risk of collisions or accidents is low. “They’re not zipping around at 30 mph so they don’t pose a threat,” he said. “I think the industry is right to be cautious about change but sometimes fear of the new and the unknown can trigger unnecessary panic.”

Safety – along with functionality – are Kärcher’s two top priorities as far as robotic solutions are concerned. The company is working on robot development and aims to bring a robot to the market in the medium term.

“Safety is especially important where machines are used in areas that are open to the public,” said head of floor care product management Marco Cardinale. “Developing a safe and functional robot is a complex task because the sensor technology needs to offer levels of environmental perception that can guarantee a collision-free operation.”

Safety standards are very much in the embryonic stage as far as robotic cleaners are concerned according to ICE’s industrial cleaning equipment chairman Darren Marston. “Autonomous technology is still very new, but we are working closely with the likes of the Industrial Cleaning Machine Manufacturers Association (ICMMA) in the UK to develop the right path and strategy around risk assessment,” he said.

However he believes his company can guarantee complete safety as far as ICE’s own Robo 2 machine is concerned. “The Robo 2 has been designed to completely avoid obstacles whether they are static, temporary or moving thanks to its sonic proximity sensors, bumper and navigation system,” said Marston. “And if there are any temporary obstacles placed within the cleaning path the machine will always return to clean any areas that have been missed.”

He says the machine’s complex sensors also ensure that the Robo 2 avoids stairwells and other drops. “It will not collide with a person who stands in its way, or with any object that falls in its path. And when it detects obstacles nearby it automatically slows down and simply moves around them.“

Built-in safety

Diversey Care’s global marketing machine leader Laurent Ryssen says his company’s robots also offer built-in safety features. “If an object such as a supermarket shelf falls down next to it, the robot would simply turn around and avoid the obstacle,” he said. “The same principle applies if people approach the robot because they find it a novelty. Actually, many of the issues we have with robots are linked to the fact that people are curious about them and will disturb them. This affects productivity because the robot will then wait until fewer people are around before resuming its cleaning task.”

In some cases, smart solutions can help to improve health and safety not only for the people who carry out the work, but also for those who occupy the buildings being cleaned. For example, Alpheois has come up with a cleaning trolley-based system designed to enhance the health and safety of the building’s occupants.

Air Smart comprises a sensor box placed on a cleaning trolley. As the cleaner wheels the trolley through a building the Air Smart system continually monitors levels of lighting, humidity and particulate matter in the atmosphere.

Smart air analysis

According to the developers, poor lighting can lead to headaches while low humidity can cause dehydration. Meanwhile, an excess of particulate matter in the atmosphere can lead to lung problems, claims Alpheois. Where these factors are being monitored via the cleaning trolley, simple measures can be taken to improve the environment by opening a window or turning up the lighting, for example.

Alpheois claims the Air Smart system has the added benefit of enabling cleaners to interact with building occupants, potentially enhancing their job satisfaction and improving their status in the facilities where they work.

Window cleaning is one of the most dangerous cleaning tasks there is, particularly where high buildings are concerned. One company that has come up with automated systems to improve the safety of high-rise window cleaning is TG Hylift.

The company offers an automated window cleaning system that comprises a rotating brush mounted on to the baskets of aerial access platforms.

“Hycleaner takes away any physical stress on the part of the cleaner,” said TG Hylift managing director Alfons Thihatmer. “Since performance is not related to operator fatigue it means that good cleaning results can be obtained consistently from sunrise to sunset.” The company is now working on another semi-automatic system that could be installed on existing suspended platforms.

There are many other ways in which smart technology in both cleaning and hygiene can be used to improve health and safety. For example, Japanese lavatory manufacturer Toto has unveiled a toilet that monitors urine flow rates and volume using sensors within the lavatory. This can determine whether or not the toilet user suffers from any lower urinary tract symptoms.

Other industry providers have experimented with toilets that can analyse visitors’ urine to determine whether they have any sexually transmitted diseases; whether they are pregnant or if they have drugs or alcohol in their system.

Whether we would welcome our health being monitored via the toilet is a moot point.  But early diagnosis often leads to better health outcomes so these smart, analytical toilets could play a significant role in improving public health in the future.

The manual task of cleaning brings with it many health and safety issues such as the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals, back injuries, occupational dermatitis and musculoskeletal disorders. While digital technology brings with it some safety implications - such as potential collisions with robots, for example - these become insignificant when weighed against the huge benefits that other breakthroughs can bring.

Innovations like automatic dosing, lightweight battery technology and cleaning robots all play a major role in taking away some of the cleaner’s heavy load while limiting their exposure to harmful substances. And since other technologies such as germ-zapping machines, clever toilets and trolley-based monitoring systems are also striving to keep the wider public safe and healthy it seems clear that digital systems spell excellent news for all of us.


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