The Impact of Robots on Worker Injuries May 22, 2021
Intelligent machines, or “robots,” are becoming more commonplace in a variety of different industries. Some companies have opted into installing intelligent machinery in order to effectively oversee and manage the productivity of human employees, but at what cost? While some claim that robots offer a safe pathway to reduce occupational human injury rates, early indicators show that this may not be entirely the case.
What are Some Common Examples of Automation?
Intelligent machines have been performing “human” tasks for longer than you may think. Something as simple as the chat box that pops up on a website when you want to speak to somebody is an example of just this; in most cases, those are actually automated systems that are mimicking a human response. The technology then passes the transcript along to the company. The same goes for the automated messages we often receive when calling a 1-800 number or even our local utility company. Sometimes these recordings sound so real that it can be hard to tell it is not an actual person on the other end.
Here are a few other common examples of automated forms of work and technology that are prevalent in professional settings:
- Hiring processes. Certain automated technologies can read through resumes, scanning for keywords and phrases that select the prospective employees who are most compatible with what a company is looking for
- Form autofill, which allow individuals to have their personal information (e.g. name, date of birth, address) automatically filled on online forms
- There are technologies that allow offices to design their workspace through automatic facility management programs (people can do this for their personal residences, too)
- Automated file transfers, order entry, email automation, and claims processes
The Dangers of Automated Work for Human Warehouse Workers
While automated voice messaging systems may not pose too many dangers, automation in warehouses and other facilities where employees routinely perform physical tasks and other types of manual labor can be more problematic. One of the most notable examples of a large-scale company with robots in its warehouses is Amazon. In the past decade or so alone, Amazon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars (maybe even billions) on robotic technologies. Back in 2012, for example, Amazon purchased a robotics company (Kiva Systems) for a whopping $775 million.
Kiva Systems created a line of mobile robots that are able to carry empty shelving units between human workers. In Amazon’s warehouses, the robot delivers an empty unit to the first human worker, a stower, who then stocks it full of products. The stower then pushes a button to summon back the robot, which then grabs the full unit and delivers it to another human employee (the picker). This form of intelligent machinery can determine where to pick up and deliver the shelving units by reading barcodes that have been installed on the warehouse floors.
During the scope of an investigative report, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting (Reveal) gained access to Amazon’s internal records from 2019. At the time, Amazon had more than 200,000 robots in its warehouses staffed alongside hundreds of thousands of human employees. The report substantiates that more employees sustained injuries in the corporation’s warehouses with robots than those who worked in warehouses without automation. Although Amazon made a public statement to Reveal alleging that robotics, automation and technology are “enhancing” the workplace and “making jobs safer and more efficient”; the investigative agency discovered that 14,000 workers in the company’s automated warehouses sustained serious injuries during that one-year period.
These numbers are not merely coincidental. Reveal found that after Amazon unveiled part of its robotic workforce in California that the number of injuries among workers nearly quadrupled. They went from 2.9 injuries per every 100 workers in 2015 to 11.3 in 2018. There is no doubt that automated technological systems offer some benefits when it comes to the health and safety of human workers. These systems can, for example, reduce the amount of walking an employee has to do every day (some reports allege that Amazon warehouse workers travel between 10-20 miles per day on foot). In the past, the stowers and pickers were doing the majority of this walking whereas today, in automated warehouses, the robotic systems are doing most of it instead. But there are plenty of hazards that come along with working with robotic systems, too.
Here are just a few examples of the serious dangers associated with partially automated workforces:
- Although pickers are doing less walking, their productivity quota has skyrocketed. According to a New York Times report, their productivity has been raised from 100 items per hour to 300-400 items per hour. This means pickers and stowers must perform repetitive motions – like twisting, lifting, and handling products – at a much faster rate in order to keep their jobs or to avoid higher ups reprimanding them for having “subpar” productivity ratings
- Robots carry shelving units as tall as 8 feet high. Pickers and stowers must use stepladders to reach the top of these units, which sometimes contain extremely heavy items. Not only does this create fall risks for human warehouse workers, but also muscle strain, sprain, and overexertion risks
Injured at Work?
Whether we are ready for it or not, the reality is that automated systems are only becoming more and more commonplace each day. Automated vehicles (of varying degrees) are on American roadways and robots “work” as food delivery couriers on college campuses nationwide, so it is no surprise that they are also becoming more popular throughout the workforce. Whether an individual works around automated technologies or not, it is the employer’s legal responsibility to protect workers from known and recognizable hazards and to uphold effective safety and health programs to guard workers. Similarly, it is a manufacturer’s responsibility to produce and sell safe products, which includes the production of robotic systems.
Depending on the circumstances that surround your work injury involving automated machinery or intelligent systems, you may want to file a workers’ compensation and/or a third party liability claim(s). To discuss the nature of your injury and determine what the best legal course of action for the damages you sustained may be, you can speak with an experienced attorney at our firm. To learn more, contact a representative who can assist you online now.
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Galfand Berger LLP has offices located in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Reading and Lancaster, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. To schedule a consultation, call us at 800-222-8792 or complete our online contact form.