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Robots: what are the risks?

At a glance

  • As businesses automate more and more of their processes in order to become more efficient, robots are entering a growing number of workplaces
  • Whether your customers use robots already or are likely to do so in future, there may be health and safety issues they haven’t considered
  • We discuss the risks and rewards of robots, and how they are likely to be used in the workplace in the years ahead

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Machines have been making workplaces more efficient since the Industrial Revolution, but their impact on health and safety is a complex issue.

Today, the emergence of robots is bringing significant health and safety benefits to a variety of workplaces, but also new challenges.

What kinds of organisations are using robots?

Robots are most commonly used in manufacturing, but are increasingly being introduced to a wide variety of industry sectors, from healthcare to retail.

Jim Wilkes, Commercial Propositions, Zurich, says: “There are retailers in the USA that have completely automated their warehouse systems, with robots doing all the work of finding and retrieving items requested by customers. You go in, enter your credit card details and the only human you see is the person who brings out items to your car.”

Mike Green, Underwriting Manager, Commercial Propositions, Zurich, adds: “Robots are increasingly being used on construction sites, with innovations such as robotic bricklayers, and we’re also seeing increasing use of automation in hospitals and care homes.”

The health and safety benefits of robots

Robots can carry out tasks that are dangerous for humans to perform, such as lifting or moving heavy objects, or working with hazardous substances. There is also a new generation of wearable robotics devices that can reduce the risk of injury, or aid the rehabilitation of workers who have been injured.

However, as a number of well-publicised incidents have demonstrated – including the death of a worker at a VW plant in Germany and a similar incident at a factory in India – wherever robots are capable of interacting with humans, there are risks that need to be mitigated.

What are the risks of a robot workforce?

Factories now routinely use cages and guards to avoid unwanted interaction between humans and fixed robots, however as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has observed, new collaborative robots are being developed that are designed to be used in the same workspace as humans.

Mike adds: “With developments in technology, we are seeing more and more robots that can move autonomously around a workplace.

“This introduces a new dimension of risk, as companies will have to anticipate not just how their robots will behave, but also how their employees might react in different scenarios. For example, if a robot experienced a mechanical failure, would employees be tempted to fix the robot themselves in order to avoid downtime, and what might the risks be in that scenario?”

Jim says: “I have been to a warehouse in the UK where employees enter a code to request a particular part and it is automatically transported to them. On the day I visited, this automated system wasn’t working, so employees were climbing up on to the racking to fetch the parts they needed, which presented obvious health and safety risks.”

What does the law say about workplace robots?

Although the HSE has published research on the risks of human and robot interaction, there are no specific health and safety rules relating to the use of robots.

With developments in technology, we are seeing more and more robots that can move autonomously around a workplace. This introduces a new dimension of risk.” Mike Green, Underwriting Manager, Commercial Propositions, Zurich

However, health and safety law does require that employers take any reasonably practicable measures that will keep their employees safe at work. For organisations operating robots alongside a human workforce, this could include:

  • Providing clear instructions to employees
  • Limiting the speed at which robots can operate, and defining the areas they can enter
  • Ensuring robots meet minimum machine safety standards

Risk assessments should also be updated to ensure they take into account the full range of potential hazards.

Jim says: “In addition, companies will have to look closely at the skillsets of their employees, as the nature of the skills required will undoubtedly change.

“Companies will need people who understand robots, and know what to do when something goes wrong.”

What are the potential insurance implications?

Should an employee be injured as a result of their employer’s failure to take reasonable safety measures, the company concerned could face an employers’ liability claim, as well as regulatory action from the HSE.

Liability issues could become even more complex as companies begin to use robots with a greater degree of autonomy, or self-learning capabilities.

A draft EU report written this year proposed the creation of an obligatory insurance scheme that would force manufacturers to take out insurance for the autonomous robots they produce.

Jim concludes: “As we move towards greater and greater automation, we are going to see increasing use of robots in all sorts of workplaces.

“That is going to change the dynamics of risk and so it’s a trend that companies should certainly be aware of.”

To discuss any aspect of this article further, speak to your usual Zurich contact.

Image © Getty

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