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Automation is increasingly being employed for tasks that were traditionally performed manually by workers in industries from automotive manufacturing to food processing, and while the change can lead to fewer injuries, the technology brings new risks.
The implementation of automation can reduce instances of repetitive strain injuries and other common injuries, but it can also lead to more severe workers compensation claims as workers interact with machines in different ways.
Automated operations can give employees a false sense of safety because they are performing fewer manual tasks and may perceive that there is no longer a danger of being exposed to traditional workplace hazards, said Kevin O’Sadnick, senior risk control manager for St. Louis-based Safety National Casualty Corp.
“Employers should still focus on providing employees with adequate training for newer automation and stress the importance of avoiding complacency,” he said.
While there is still a chance of workplace injuries, automating certain operations typically means fewer employees are exposed to hazards and often leads to fewer employees needing to be insured, he said, since automation could lead to fewer workers on the payroll.
Over the past decade, employers have increased pressure on workers to speed up processes, particularly in jobs such as warehousing and delivery.
“Wherever there has been work speedup, there’s also been demand for human speedup,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology labor economist David Autor, who addressed automation and its forecasted effect on industry, workers comp systems and general employment during a presentation at the Workers Compensation Research Institute’s annual Issues & Research conference in Phoenix in March.
The shift to automation reduces repetitive motion injuries, especially in warehousing and delivery jobs — where compressed timelines are raising concerns. Amazon Inc., for example, is the subject of several investigations — including by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration — on worker injury rates and work site “quotas” on delivery.
In many ways, automation and new technologies have made workplaces safer, which has been reflected in a years-long decline in workers comp frequency rates, said Mark Walls, vice president of client engagement for Safety National.
Yet as some workplaces become more automated, with new technologies being deployed to help with productivity and cut down on injuries, severity may be an issue, experts say.
In manufacturing and warehousing, new technologies used as tools to help with repetitive stress injuries affecting the musculoskeletal system — such as robots — can lead to more severe and costly claims if workers are hurt by the technology.
Rebecca Morgan, Kansas City, Missouri-based vice president of product management for Enlyte Group LLC subsidiary Mitchell International Inc., said one step employers can take to better manage risks associated with automation is education.
“As the injuries change, we need to educate and protect workers in a slightly different way,” she said, emphasizing the importance of better training employees to work alongside robots in a more collaborative way.
In some cases, workers may be required to perform quality assurance checks on the machines that are performing the automated tasks, she said.
“I do think we’ll see fewer injuries overall, but the types of injuries will change as the workplace becomes automated,” Ms.
Morgan said. “Whether we are talking about a robot on a manufacturing line or software automation in the back office, workers will need to learn to perform their functions alongside that automation.”
Mr. O’Sadnick, of Safety National, said new technologies come with high-tech safety features, including laser barriers or interlocked access gates, and informing workers on the importance of these features can help cut down on workplace injuries.
Kushal Agrawal, Chicago-based senior vice president, head of strategy, at third-party administrator Gallagher Bassett Services Inc., said any new technology introduced in the workplace with the goal of modifying work, “almost always introduces a new risk.”
“The new risk that gets introduced in theory should be less frequent, (but) it could have a high severity,” he said.
Mr. Agrawal said keeping workers healthy and safety-conscious can help manage risks associated with an automated workplace.
While the use of robotics in some sectors is intended to cut down more repetitive worker injuries by replacing manual tasks, employees are still in danger of getting hurt in new and different ways, said Newport Beach, California-based attorney Jeff Adelson, with the firm Adelson McLean.
“How is being hurt by a robot any different from having a machine fail or having a defect in a machine?” he said. “You’re not supposed to stick your hand in a punch press. You’re probably not supposed to engage in a robotic device.”
Aaron Holt, a labor and employment attorney in the Houston office of law firm Cozen O’Connor, said problems with newer technologies concern everyday safety aspects, since automation “takes the human out of the equation,” which could lead to injuries.
“If everything continues working as it should, and as it was designed to, then maybe there’s not a problem,” he said. “As we are trying out new technologies, we have to be careful not to trust too much, too quickly in technology that we do not fully appreciate some of the unintended consequences.”
Mr. Holt said most companies strive to be safety conscious, while also striving to still be profitable.
“That’s always sort of the interplay in making sure you’re doing things safely … but at the same time you’re wisely spending your resources for the long-term health of the business,” he said.
Mr. Holt said “more complicated and expensive” automated machines could potentially lead to more severe worker injuries, but manually controlled machines also account for the bulk of worker injury claims.
“There’s a cost to a bunch of little injuries,” he said. “There’s a cost to a big injury. The employer’s still going to be liable for both of those injuries.”
Workers compensation injury frequency rates are declining, and industry experts say new workplace technologies are helping to cut claims.
New technologies such as wearable devices used in construction and other industries are deployed to reduce injury frequency.
For example, exoskeletons in the construction field are used to help increase strength and decrease stress to workers’ muscles and joints.
Other wearable devices focus more on environmental job site safety by alerting workers to dangers and hazards that could lead to injuries.
“It all boils down to, you can deploy technology to reduce frequency, but that again has to be focused, it has to be isolated to a place, and then you have to customize it and then you’ll actually see results,” said Kushal Agrawal, Chicago-based senior vice president, head of strategy at Gallagher Bassett Services Inc.
Companies that see more frequent rates of repetitive musculoskeletal injuries tend to be adopting wearables, Mr. Agrawal said.
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