A technician was killed by a robot at a Volkswagen plant near Kassel, Germany on Wednesday, in a rare accident that touches on concerns about the spread of automation and its impact on jobs.
The 21-year-old contractor was working with a colleague to install the machine when he was struck in the chest by the equipment and pressed against a metal plate. He later died of his injuries.
The fatality comes as concerns spread about the effects of automation, including long-range fears about whether robots can be controlled when they become more intelligent than humans. However, experts said that the accident at VW appeared to have more in common with industrial accidents that have been familiar for years, rather than the newer types of robotics that have made the headlines.
Deaths in factories caused by automated equipment date back decades, starting with an accident on an automobile assembly line in the 1970s, said Paul Saffo, a technology analyst in Silicon Valley. “It wasn’t the first time — but timing is everything,” he said, since the accident has occurred at a time when “people are getting their knickers in a twist about ‘the robots taking our jobs’.”
Robot-related fatalities are rare in western production plants as heavy robots are kept behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans.
In this incident, the contractor was standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred. A second employee was outside the cage and was unharmed. VW said the robot did not suffer a technical defect. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into how the accident occurred.
Fatal injuries for every 100,000 full-time equivalent employees in manufacturing in the US in 2013
VW said the machine was not one of the new generation of lightweight collaborative robots that car manufacturers are starting to install to work alongside workers on the production line.
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.
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 transport equipment industry, the fatality rate was just 0.9 per 100,000 employees, according to US government data.
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 car industry has by far the highest density of robots, but such automation is increasing rapidly in other industries such as electronics and healthcare as their cost falls and capabilities increase.
Collaborative robots do not have a safety cage but their force and speed can be limited by the way they are built. They also have sensors to detect human movement. Some are also designed to stop if a human gets too close.
VW said last year it planned to use more robots to cope with a shortage of new workers as baby boomers retire in coming years.
The company said these robots would take over monotonous tasks, while humans would focus on more highly skilled jobs.
Additional reporting by Ed Crooks in New York
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