Industrial Robots Can Reduce Injuries

Industrial Robots Can Reduce Injuries

March 21, 2024
One standard deviation increase in robot exposure (1.34 robots per 1000 workers) reduces work-related injury rates by 1.2 injuries per 100 full-time workers.

I will admit I have a fascination with industrial robots. It stemmed from observing them in manufacturing plants across the globe. While initially they performed singular functions, today the breadth of range of motion and ability is amazing. 

Watching this video the other day about how Mercedes-Benz is using a humanoid robot called Apollo (from Apptronik) lift and carry heavy boxes, put things on shelves and generally perform tasks that are not only less than ideal for people to perform, but can also lead to injuries, reinforced the positive safety aspect of robotics. 

Looking for data that concludes robots in the plant can reduce injuries I found an academic study, "Industrial robots, Workers' safety, and health" from 2022, that studied the relationship between the adoption of industrial robots and workers’ safety, health and well-being. 

Reduce Injuries

In the introduction the authors point out using robots for physically intense activities can “offer considerable safety benefits to human workers, as robots can help prevent injuries or adverse health effects resulting from working in hazardous conditions."

They include the example of musculoskeletal disorders due to repetitive or awkward motions, or traumatic injuries.

The authors note that robots can also prevent multiple hazards in emergency response situations such as chemical spills.

Additionally, they can protect workers as they are able to minimize risks stemming from human error.

Potential Problems

There are however some concerns. One of the major concerns is the ability of sensors to detect nearby humans. 

Another interesting aspect that the authors considered was the mental health issues that can arise when robots become co-workers. 

Overall Conclusions

Using data from both the US and Germany, as leading adopters of robots, the authors reviewed detailed establishment-level data on work injuries from OSHA and the Data Initiative (ODI) covering the 2005 to 2011 period.

They found that a one standard deviation increase in robot exposure (1.34 robots per 1000 workers) reduces work-related injury rates by approximately 1.2 injuries per 100 full-time workers. 

They estimated that the increase in robots saved $1.69 billion per year in injury costs (using 2007 dollars.). They explained this calculation. "This result largely reflects a reduction in injury rates at manufacturing firms which decline by 1.75 injuries per 100 full-time workers (or 0.22 standard deviations; 95% CI: −2.48, −1.02)."

When they looked at the mental health aspect of automation they concluded the following.  Here is an excerpt of their explanation of this aspect. 

We then turn to investigate whether robots have an impact on workers’ mental health in the US. Using commuting zone-level data on mortality (source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] Vital Statistics) and survey data on mental health problems (source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System [BRFSS]), we show that robot penetration leads to sizable increases in drug or alcohol-related deaths and mental health problems. A one standard deviation increase in robot exposure raises deaths due to drug or alcohol abuse by 0.37 standard deviations (10.5% increase with respect to the mean) and the number of days during the previous month when the respondent felt his or her mental health was not good by 0.40 standard deviations (14.9% increase with respect to the mean).

However, we find no evidence of significant effects on the suicide rate. Overall, we interpret these findings as evidence suggesting that the labor market pressure and fears induced by robot penetration (Acemoglu and Restrepo, 2020) may have detrimental effects on workers’ mental health (see also Venkataramani and O’Brien, 2020).

The results based on the German individual panel data show that a one standard deviation increase in robot exposure is associated with a 0.01 standard deviations reduction in the risk of reporting any disability (−5% with respect to the mean) and a 0.02 standard deviations reduction in the likelihood of being employed in a highly physically intensive task (−4% with respect to the mean). We also find no evidence of significant effects of robot exposure on workers’ well-being and mental health.

In an analysis in 2023, the National Safety Council, issued a report, "Work to Zero", which explored how a variety of technologies can reduce injuries. 

“Robotics have long been deployed by organizations to improve operational efficiencies, but as companies increasingly look towards a more automated future, the many benefits this technology brings to workplace safety programs cannot be overlooked,” said Katherine Mendoza, senior director, workplace programs, NSC, said when announcing the report.

“Recent advancements in data science and artificial intelligence mean that robotic vehicles and arms aren’t just capable of augmenting complex, precise tasks alongside human workers, but in many instances can eliminate employees’ exposure to dangerous machinery and workplace hazards altogether," Mendoza added.

While the NSC has a positive outlook on the technology, close attention also needs to be paid to how technology can go wrong.  In November of 2023, a worker was crushed to death at a vegetable packaging plant in South Korea after he was grabbed and pressed against a conveyor belt by the machine's robotic arms. So, work must continue on how to make automation safe. 

However, automation is here to stay and will exponentially increase. It is up to the entire automation ecosystem to ensure the end result of automation is to prevent worker injuries.  


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