As more companies begin to use robots in the workplace, many are beginning to weigh the risks. Earlier this month it was reported that a German worker was killed by a robot in a VW auto manufacturing plant.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s website warns of potential dangers involved in advanced robotic systems in the workplace. Just this year, OSHA cited a Maine textile manufacturer for exposing workers to carpet trimming robots, which were able to extend their arms beyond a safe perimeter, potentially striking the robots operators or nearby employees.

Bionic Exoskeleton designed by Ekso Bionics.
Ekso Bionics exoskeleton (Photo: Ekso Bionics)

According to the federal workplace safety agency, studies performed in Sweden and Japan have determined that many robot-related injuries were the result of programming, maintenance, installation or repair error.

A relief to some, considering many of the nearly 1,900 respondents to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs” survey thought that robotics and AI will permeate much of daily life by 2025.

Health care, transportation and logistics, customer service, and manufacturing were found to be the industries most likely to be impacted by the technology.

The Congressional Robotics Caucus Advisory Committee in 2013 issued a “Roadmap for U.S. Robotics: From Internet to Robotics,” which noted a key driver for robotics in the workplace was to address the aging population. The benefits of using robots, according to the report, included assisting with dirty, dull and dangerous tasks while offering increased productivity and worker safety.

The government report looked at specific industries such as manufacturing and highlighted the automotive industry, which had been using robotic technology for some time, though it was thought that it would be quickly overtaken by the electronics sector. Widely used in the medical field as well, robots have been tapped to conduct neurological, orthopedic and general surgery. In fact, the report noted that use of robots for surgery reduced complications by up to 80 percent and yielded faster return to work and daily activities.

Jeff White, director of innovation for Accident Fund Holdings, a national workers compensation specialty writer, said that robots in the workplace is nothing new. Installed in the 1980s in auto manufacturing plants, they were programmed to complete specific functions. He said as automation increases and more general purpose robots are placed side by side with human workers, the likely outcome is a safer environment leading to a reduction in claims frequency.

Effect of Robotics on Claims

While the intent of robotics will be to increase safety and productivity, there undoubtedly will be a shift in the types of claims that arise from their use in the workplace.

According to Gail Gottherer, a Connecticut-based partner at Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider, an injury caused by a robot at work will be handled much the same way as an injury caused by a co-worker. The worker could file a workers comp claim, and the employer could proceed with a products liability claim if there was an issue with the robot’s design.

Last year, employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson issued a report, “The Transformation of the Workplace Through Robotics, AI and Automation.”

“For the purpose of determining eligibility for workers compensation benefits, injuries caused by robots will be treated the same as injuries caused by using any other tool used in the workplace, such as a hammer, wrench or computer keyboard,” the report stated.

Fortis exoskeleton. Credit Lockheed Martin-2-2
Lockheed Martin Fortis exoskeleton (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

With the increased use of robots in a variety of industries—from food service to airline ground transportation—developers will need to be cognizant of liability risks, the report’s authors wrote. “Workers compensation is intended to provide compensation to injured employees on a no-fault basis and generally preempts state law tort claims. However, the law generally permits tort claims against third parties that cause workplace injuries.”

The report outlined the idea that robots will not only be used in several industries but will also become more mainstream in daily life, citing that robots will provide elder care and household services.

Human activities will also be augmented by exoskeletons that can be used to increase mobility and muscle function, the report stated. Companies like Cyberdyne and Lockheed Martin are developing lightweight exoskeletons to enhance a user’s strength and endurance.

“To the extent manufacturing or design defects in exoskeleton technology cause injuries, the companies will likely face personal injury claims. Companies and trade groups may consider legal reform efforts to remove this barrier to fully integrating this technology into the workplace,” the Littler report’s authors concluded. “Workers will continue to have the right to sue third parties over work injuries caused by machinery, equipment and tools.”

The frequency of third-party civil suits against robot designers, manufacturers and installers will likely increase, the report said. Negligence, product liability and design defect will be the most likely actions filed.

While wearable robot technology could protect against workplace injuries, the report’s authors anticipate that increased productivity could give rise to higher employer expectations on human workers and, in turn, to an increased injury risk. There’s also the possibility that the increased physical capabilities gained from using wearable robotics will tempt workers to push themselves, potentially increasing the risk of injury.

“If not carefully monitored, the benefit of robotics could be lost as the injury rate keeps pace with these heightened expectations and demands,” the report’s authors wrote.

The employment firm’s report outlined other potential areas where claims could arise, including an employers’ obligation for notice of layoffs, severance pay and retraining opportunities. In addition, legal issues could arise relating to unionized workers and whether adding robots falls under a collective bargaining agreement. Anti-discrimination issues could arise with the use of robots during job interviews, if the data obtained leads to unintended analysis. Trade secret and privacy issues could also arise from the expanding use of robots in the workplace, the report concluded.

A University of Washington School of Law faculty member, Ryan Calo, said that it is imperative that the law catch up in “how to deal effectively with the rise of robotics.”

In an article published in the June issue of the California Law Review, the assistant law professor wrote, “Robotics combines, for the first time, the promiscuity of data with the capacity to do physical harm. Robotic systems accomplish tasks in ways that cannot be anticipated in advance, and robots increasingly blur the line between person and instrument.”

Related Article (members only content): Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Industry Jobs?