Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!

Coming in 2006, this little guy uses positive reinforcement to promote safe work practices.

IT'S a hot, blistering day on the construction site. A worker stops to notice an attractive lady walking by confidently. She's secretly ready to barrage him with a stream of obscenities at the first sound of a whistle and sure enough, one rings clearly above the construction din. In a flash the woman stops in her tracks and turns to seek out her offender. But it isn't the worker--it's a small robot no taller than her knees. And it wasn't addressing her; it was whistling at one of the workers! Ego bruised, the woman storms off. There are plenty of other construction sites.

Meet SafetyBotTM, a lightweight roving robot that isn't just wolf whistling. In fact, this little guy rewards workers for using safe work practices. It is the latest innovation from Columbia, S.C.-based Bill Sims Co., creator of many safety incentive programs.

Keeping in Compliance
Safety managers participating in a Bill Sims program give workers a "You Did It Right!" card when noticing a safe work practice. The card contains a checked-off list of actions for which the worker is being recognized. Employees would then have to log onto the program network through the Internet, their company's intranet, a phone call, or a StarKiosk to see what level of prize is awarded. That prize is then added to the worker's account until the worker is ready to cash it in for a selection of prizes from the Award of Excellence catalog.

SafetyBot is designed to remove all of these inconveniences. "It roams across the construction site. It's about the size of R2D2. It whistles at people, it gets their attention," said Bill Sims Jr., president of the Bill Sims Company. "Instead of waiting for you to find it in the breakroom, it's going to find you. When you get a 'You Did It Right!' card from your safety manager, you just take it over to SafetyBot, log it in, and get a prize."

At the same time, SafetyBot will make sure the employee is up to code on the latest safety compliance instruction and testing. Safety is a constantly changing field, with new codes and regulations always on the forefront. Once a worker provides an ID number, the robot can give any necessary instruction that worker hasn't received, followed by a test to ensure the information was retained. All of this information will be logged and saved for company records. When the employee has fulfilled a compliance requirement, SafetyBot adds an award of its own that goes directly to the worker's account. The robot then moves on, seeking out other workers to whistle over.

TV That Makes You Smarter
In addition to keeping workers in compliance, SafetyBot can keep them informed with the "Safe TV" concept. The robot's touch screen can be used to display the latest company information as it roams a site and interacts with workers. "There's all kinds of safety things and quality messages that these managers need to get across to their employees," Sims said. "The safety manager can select what he wants to flash up. He can have a little bit of CNN news pop up for 20 or 30 seconds, get the headlines out there. He can toggle it back to another Web site that would flash up."

Remote Patrol
Beyond such autonomous functions, SafetyBot also comes with what Sims calls a "telepresence" option, which allows the Bill Sims team to further help safety managers perform their duties.

"Even though we are in South Carolina, we'll be able to be at your business and remote-control SafetyBot around your plant and look for people doing things safely and talk to them," Sims said. "It's an emerging field of robotics where we will actually be in the plant without physically being there."

This option allows SafetyBot not only to reward good safety behavior, but also help to stop any unsafe worker practices the robot's operator may notice. "Whether it's a human that notices or whether it's a robot, I don't think the employee cares, as long as this little robot comes up to him . . . and says, 'Hey, you lifted incorrectly, how about doing it this way next time?'" Sims said.

Sims doesn't rule out the eventual possibility of having this option available autonomously. "That would require a level of intelligence beyond what the robot can do," he said. "For a robot to be able to see [you] lifting correctly or incorrectly and stop you and tell you . . . that probably will happen down the road, but it is probably a generation or two of software upgrades [removed]."

The SafetyBot is currently in development. Sims said the company plans to debut it in 2006. "It's in the works, in the pipeline--it's coming," Sims said. "We hope to be able to have a demo of SafetyBot at our next trade shows this summer."

This column appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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