Remote-Controlled Machinery: On a Mission for Safety

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A view from inside the University Link Tunnel. This project will connect downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill and the University District with a high-speed light rail line.

A view from inside the University Link Tunnel. This project will connect downtown Seattle, Capitol Hill and the University District with a high-speed light rail line.

Whether cutting through clay or breaking rock, underground operations pose several challenges, especially in terms of safety.

Amidst the debris, another threat lurks — prolonged and repetitive use of handheld equipment. It’s less obvious, but no less debilitating. And there’s no personal protective equipment to fend off the injuries to arms, backs, hands, shoulders and wrists.

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Handheld equipment, such as rivet busters, breakers or chipping guns, are seen on nearly every tunneling jobsite. It’s no surprise to those who run them day after day, or to those who pay the workers’ compensation premiums, that handheld tools can lead to injuries.

They produce vibrations that transfer directly to the operator, and prolonged use can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, nerve damage and hand-arm vibration syndrome. These injuries make completing simple tasks, such as writing or gripping a steering wheel, a life-long challenge.

Fortunately, there’s another option that attacks the problem of jobsite injuries from several different angles: remote-controlled machinery. They are hard-hitting, powerful and versatile machines that take safety, not to mention productivity, to a whole new level. And they’ve been doing it for more than 35 years.

An Alternative Solution

The first commercially built remote-controlled machine made its debut in 1981. A Swedish contractor designed the first model as a safe alternative for his crew to use while cleaning a furnace in a lead smelting plant. Before he introduced the unit, the work required his crewmembers to endure above-normal temperatures and use jackhammers at awkward angles. It was a recipe for fatigue, potential burns and hand, arm and back injuries.

The contractor devised a remote-controlled solution for working smarter, not harder — a piece of equipment that did the same work while the operator ran the machine from a safe distance. Over the next few decades remote-controlled machinery took on applications outside of smelting plants, and the arsenal of machines grew.

Today’s remote-controlled machines are designed to maximize worksite safety and versatility. For example, they have a three-part arm that allows operators to perform a wide range of tasks at nearly any angle without tiring or straining muscles. Additionally, operators can equip machines with attachments, including breakers, buckets, scabblers and rock drills, to break, crush, grind, sort and move material, all while remaining a safe distance from the work. This substantially reduces the risk of injuries or death from hazards, such as falling debris, when operating handheld tools or machines that are not fully enclosed.

Remote-controlled machines can be as short as 4 ft and as narrow as 2 ft, and maneuver through tunnels just shy of 3 ft. Because of their small size, long reach, high power-to-weight ratio and zero emissions, remote-controlled machines are ideally suited to many tunneling applications.

Changing the Industry

Remote-controlled operations enable workers to remain a safe distance away — as far as several hundred feet — from common hazards, including falling debris. Operation is much simpler and far less labor-intensive as well, preventing potential injuries and eliminating any fatigue-related issues.

When blasting a tunnel wall, remote-controlled machines can roll in and perform scaling operations to remove loose, potentially dangerous material from tunnel walls without the risk of injuring workers.

Due to confined space commonly found in tunnels, the compact body of a remote-controlled machine allows workers to access areas that were once inaccessible to other machines. When excavating a cross passage, for instance, contractors using excavators might not be able to access narrow cross-passages because their equipment is too large. However, remote-controlled machinery’s compact size provides easy access such areas, to better visualize the size of remote-controlled machinery, some models are small enough to fit through a standard doorway.

Remote-controlled machinery also offers immense versatility with a wide range of available attachments. A hydraulic rock drill can be paired with the machine to drill holes to place explosives or splitters, and to also provide a better surface for breaking operations. They can then quickly switch out the drill for a hydraulic breaker, grinder or bucket to size and remove debris.

Less Is More

In 2013, workers’ compensation premiums increased to $41.9 billion, the highest level since 2007. That’s a key reason for the growing popularity of remote-controlled machines. The increased safety leads to fewer injuries and workers’ compensation claims, which means associated costs are reduced substantially. For some companies, that could mean a speedy return on investment.

The small machines come with high productivity, too. In fact, remote-controlled machines complete the same amount of work as three operators with handheld equipment in the same amount of time. A single machine can perform dozens of tunneling applications, such as breaking tough rock and digging in clay. This means contractors can do more with less and in less time, which allows them to bid on jobs with tighter deadlines.

Prepare to Protect

Safety is the most critical issue on every tunneling jobsite. Getting everyone home safe at the end of every day often requires reinforcements beyond standard protective gear. Especially when jobs become tricky or more dangerous, it’s time for the big guns — remote-controlled machinery. In the struggle for safety, efficiency and lowering costs, they’re the ultimate individual, crew and company protective equipment.

Peter Bigwood is the vice president of sales and marketing for Brokk’s North American subsidiary. He has more than 25 years of industry and leadership experience.

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