Robots: what are the risks? – Ashleigh Mackay and Associates
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Ashleigh Mackay

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.

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.

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