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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.

Zurich, over the last couple of years, have introduced the use of a robot during the claims process. Zara, the automated chatbot, has helped personal lines and commercial customers and brokers report over 3,000 claims since its launch in 2018, and is just another example of how businesses are becoming more automated.

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 man undergoing surgery at the hands of a robot, 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.

Research conducted in Sweden and Japan has indicated that a large number of robotic incidents do not occur during normal operating conditions, but actually either during programming, maintenance, or adjustments. Whilst the use of robots provides many benefits, there are still questions to be asked around their safety during human interaction – for example, would a human feel comfortable fixing a faulty aspect of a robot in order to save time, or would this present even more risk?

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.

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.

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 in 2016 proposed the creation of an obligatory insurance scheme that would force manufacturers to take out insurance for the autonomous robots they produce.

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

Image © Getty

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