Forklifts and automated guided vehicles are useful tools in factories and distribution facilities.  With regard to worker safety, however, there are issues to keep in mind when using either manned or automated powered industrial vehicles.  Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that someone gets killed every three days in a forklift accident, that almost 80% of the 110,000 annual forklift accidents involve a pedestrian and that it costs the U.S. over $135 million per year. 

Besides workers' compensation or workers' lost time at the job, there are huge lawsuit awards made for forklift accidents. When you start adding up awards such as $750,000 for a back injury or $2.8 million for a foot injury, it's easy to see how these costs add up, given the number of incidents reported each year. These statistics are mainly due to humans walking or working near forklifts and who are not seen by the trained forklift operator.

AGV safetyRecent information about automated guided vehicle (AGV) accidents also demonstrates that even with onboard sensors these vehicles did not detect nearby workers.  Further complications involving worker safety will happen as AGVs work in more unstructured environments and/or when robot arms are added (see figure 1).

These safety risks can be mitigated with the use of new technologies, such as three-dimensional sensors and algorithms that provide industrial vehicles with information about potential collisions in their paths. 

However, the capabilities of these new sensors need to be well-characterized and their strengths and weaknesses need to be understood before they can be incorporated onto vehicles that are deployed on factory floors.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working with industry and academia to provide technical foundations for strengthening and expanding the safety standards for industrial vehicles through the use of more advanced sensors and algorithms. NIST conducts experiments that provide data to support the development of test methods that augment safety standards for industrial vehicles.  We describe some of our salient work in industrial vehicle safety standards in this article.