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Robotics in the Workplace: Hazards Emerge

Robotic machinery can cause serious and even deadly injuries to workers. As robotics evolve, workplace safety standards and reporting requirements must also change. There are many risks involving robotic machinery that employers and workers must protect themselves against.  

New Safety Hazards

While robots can operate in hazardous environments and thus help protect workers from some types of injuries, their use can create new hazards in the workplace. Studies have shown that robots initially decrease the rate of workplace injuries. However, as robot usage increases in manufacturing, construction, and other industries, the risk of new types of accidents involving robotic machinery is rising. These include the risk of crushing injuries and “caught-in-between” accidents where workers get caught between the machine and walls, fencing, shelves, or other machinery. 

Accidents involving robotic machinery can occur when computer chips falter, programming fails, wires short, or sensors suffer damage. When these faults occur, workers may operate in close proximity to a malfunctioning machine without knowledge that the robot is damaged. Already, several instances have been recorded involving driverless forklifts, cleaning machinery, excavation equipment, and other robots that have failed and caused injuries and deaths.

Manufacturer and Employer Liability

When robotic machinery causes injuries, employees can file workers’ compensation claims to recover money for lost wages and medical bills. Additionally, liability for accidents involving robotic machinery can fall upon the manufacturer of the machine or on programmers responsible for software installation and maintenance. Manufacturers can be held liable for design or manufacturing defects that make the machine dangerous. Programmers can be held liable for faults in the software that create hazards to workers.

Regulations and Reporting Needs to Evolve Rapidly

There are currently few regulations or reporting requirements related specifically to robotic machinery. While there are basic guidelines employers and manufacturers must follow, these are very loose. Moreover, reporting requirements and recording of instances involving robotic machinery are limited. Thus, the total number of incidents and injuries suffered is currently unknown. As the use of robotic machinery expands at a rapid pace, legislators and regulators need to do more to protect workers from the hazards they create. In the interim, it is largely up to employers to establish and enforce safety standards that can protect workers from harm.  

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