It was momentarily tempting to headline this as killer robots strike back, but the tragedy of the situation encourages us to take a more responsible line in reporting the death of a 22-year old contract worker in a Volkswagen factory near Kassel, Germany, this week.
Apparently, the worker was installing a robot on the production line when an arm activated and struck him across the chest pinning him to a metal plate. He later died as a result of his injuries. The fatality has sparked a debate in Germany, not least because there is an ongoing concern about machines replacing workers and the loss of jobs, a worry as old as the invention of the spinning machine.
In reality, Germany, along with many advanced economies, has little alternative. As the baby boom generation declines there just aren’t enough workers and salary levels rise to the point where it’s only economic to manufacture at home if machines, robots, are used. The same reason why France is more productive than the UK, (yes I know it’s hard to believe, isn’t it?) because salaries are higher forcing firms to invest in automation.
The Robots are Safer, We Swear
On the more specific worry of robot safety, in practice the addition of robots has improved worker safety. A Financial Times article states robot-related fatalities are rare in western production plants as heavy robots are kept behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans.
Because this incident was a new install, the contractor was standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred. A second employee was outside the cage and was unharmed. Indeed, fatality rates in manufacturing are below the average for the economy as a whole, and have been falling as automation has increased in both Europe and the US.
The FT reports there were 2.1 fatal injuries for every 100,000 full-time equivalent employees in manufacturing in the US in 2013, down from 2.7 in 2006. In the transportation equipment industry, the fatality rate was just 0.9 per 100,000 employees, according to US government data.
Factories: Safer Than Bars
Conversely anyone who has been in a club on a Saturday night will not be surprised to hear it is about eight times more dangerous to work in a bar in the US than in manufacturing: the fatality rate there was 16.4 deaths per 100,000 employees.
The Prosecution Calls Witness IG-88
Prosecutors are said to be considering whether to press charges in the man’s death, and if so, against whom? Now there is a vision worthy of ridicule as the lawyer questions the robot in court “so explain to the court what you were doing at the time of the accident”. Robot “bzz, bzz, whrrr, clunk.”