In the science fiction classic “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, all robots are hardwired to obey orders, to never harm humans and to sacrifice themselves if necessary to keep humans safe. The plot twists are about humans coming to harm anyway despite those secure intentions of the robots’ creators.
In real life, robot-related injuries and fatalities are occurring more frequently as robotic technologies are deployed in more and more workplaces. Employers as well as the manufacturers and programmers may be liable for damages when robots “go rogue” or break down and cause workplace injuries to their human counterparts.
Robotic machinery accidents will become more common
We are still a long ways from robotic androids working side-by-side with humans (or serving as our supervisors!) But various forms of robots have crept into nearly every occupation – from manufacturing and distribution to surgery, farming and law enforcement. We are already on the horizon of self-driving cars and trucks. And that will almost certainly mean more accidents caused by automated machines – in many cases robots that are ironically meant to spare humans from danger and exertion.
“Employee was killed by industrial robots”
Sounds like science fiction but that’s the heading of an actual workplace fatality in 2004 in which an employee entered a workplace enclosure operated entirely by robots. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has tracked robot-related injuries in the workplace since at least 1984. Many accidents occur when robotic machinery jams or when a robot arm that is still energized needs to be manually serviced.
- Employee Killed When Robot Pinned His Neck (2001)
- Employee Suffers Multiple Injuries – Cleaning Robotic Arm (1997)
- Maintenance Worker Is Struck And Killed By Robot (2013)
- Employee Killed When Burned By Robotic Hot Metal Pourer (1996)
Lockout/tagout procedures and other safety measures do not always apply to workplace robotics, because of the inefficiency of repeatedly powering down the robot and rebooting it. Sensors and guards do not always work as intended. Crush injuries are the most common; robots are heavy and hydraulic, no match for a human who gets in the way.
A healthy respect for robots
The robots are here to serve us. But because they are so strong and quick, it is critical to stay alert in work zones and strictly follow all safety protocols. The “First Law of Robotics” — do no harm to humans – only exists in fiction. In reality, workplace robots are more like beasts of burden, dumb but powerful creatures that can injure or kill without really thinking.