The risks in automating work processes

Science fiction movies made us think of a 2020 with flying cars. Although that hasn’t happened yet, we have made great technological advances that have digitized our entire lives, especially on the heels of the coronavirus: payments via cell phone, where we can also watch movies and multimedia content, communicate with people on the other side of the world with whom we have no common language… And we are still in the first quarter of the 21st century.

How does technology affect the workplace?

The fact is that we not only have technology everywhere in our daily lives, but also at work, where technological progress is most evident. The automation of some dangerous jobs has proved to be a great advance in occupational health and safety, a boon for workers as long as the progress is managed correctly.

The automation of industrial processes

The main purpose of automation is to maximize results and minimize risk, especially in those jobs where accident or occupational disease risk is high.

For that reason, many industrial companies have numerous automated systems that form part of and control the production process, regulating pressure, temperature, level, flow, etc.

Automation risks

But the automation of an industrial plant is not always enough. In 1984, one of the most tragic accidents on record occurred at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic compound, was released into the atmosphere, killing thousands of people and injuring hundreds. It is believed that one of the reasons that this happened was that water entered the MIC storage tank, generating an exothermic reaction that increased the pressure and temperature inside.

You might think that, in this situation, an automated system would have prevented the catastrophe, but it did not: the pressure and temperature meters were not working and the cooling system was connected.

Of course, systems automation at industrial plants is essential, but it is not enough by itself: it can constitute an occupational hazard for some workers or fail to keep to its parameters and make mistakes. In addition, in many cases, these machines are controlled by one person, who can also make mistakes. It is therefore essential to know the risks of automation and design standards or safety criteria to prevent accidents at work. The UN/IEC 62061 and ISO 12100 standards are designed to mitigate these risks based on various quality standards.