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Can industrial robots improve workplace safety? What’s the cost?

On Behalf of | Dec 9, 2022 | Mental Injury, Work Accidents

Robots are becoming increasingly integrated into our lives, and that includes our workplaces – especially industrial workplaces. That might mean robots taking on the riskiest work, reducing the hazards to human workers. Automation could also mean exposing human workers to new risks, just as other machinery has. Which will it be?

Probably a little of both if history serves as a guide. For now, however, one recent study indicates that automation is reducing the overall workplace injury rate in the U.S. and Germany.

The study, done by economists at the University of Pittsburgh, analyzed data from workplace injury reports and organizations who collect data on workplace injuries.

It found that, for each standard deviation increase in exposure to robots, a given U.S. regional labor market experienced 1.2 fewer workplace injuries per 100 workers. That’s statistically significant and good to hear. Meanwhile, in Germany, there was as much as a 5% drop in injuries.

There was, however, one caveat: people in automated workplaces in the U.S. also experienced a significant increase in the risk of drug or alcohol-related death, along with a slight increase in the risk of suicide. This did not appear to be the case in Germany.

Why would automation increase mental health risk?

The study’s findings were surprising, especially in that workforce automation appears to increase mental health distress in American workers but not in German ones. Although the researchers did not specifically study this difference, the lead researcher suggested it might be because American workers fear the loss of their jobs more than Germans do.

“Robot exposure did not cause disruptive job losses in Germany; Germany has a much higher employment protection legislation,” the researcher told Insurance Journal.

“Our evidence finds that, in both contexts, robots have a positive impact on the physical health of workers by reducing injuries and work- related disabilities. However, our findings suggests that, in contexts where workers were less protected, competition with robots was associated with a rise in mental health problems.”

It is an important point. The more disruptive the loss of a job would be, the more human beings fear losing that job. And, if there are fewer social supports in place, losing a job is riskier.

Based on the findings of this study, the economists said that developing robotics may lead to more disruptive results for American workers than physical injuries would.

It’s worth keeping in mind that further studies could indicate that the U.S. workforce injury rate is not declining due to automation.

It’s also important to note that mental health problems caused by job stress can qualify for workers’ comp in Illinois. It can be difficult to prove that work is the cause of a mental illness, but it is possible to obtain benefits in serious cases.

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