Are the machines about to kill us and take over?

Last week many people may have seen a news story about a fatal accident at work in Germany. This one managed to make international news on the basis as that the worker was killed by a robot. The involvement of a robot prompted a flurry of jokes about the coming robot apocalypse – a staple of many science fiction films.

Sadly the story didn’t break the news because it was a rare case of someone dying at work: this happens all too often. In 2013-14, 136 people died in the UK due to fatal injuries at work. In fact this recent accident showed many similarities to an accident in 1981 where a worker was crushed to death by a robot in Japan. Deaths at work are all too common and do not normally break onto the news.

Unite activist, Andrew “Ozzy” Osbourne explores the causes of the accident as asks who is really to blame.

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Like everyone I was saddened and shocked by the death of the worker at the Volkswagen plant in Germany. If factory management are to be believed, he was killed by a factory robot arm he was attempting to reprogram.

Speaking as a systems engineer, who works in this industry, and who has been punched in the head by a robot arm, I know all too well the dangers of working with automation in environments like this. The company has blamed human error, but that is clearly an automatic response of management to a tragic situation. The real issue here is to ask why this event occurred and to risk assess every dangerous situation in the workplace.

There is absolutely no reason to ever get up close and personal, even while reprogramming it or adjusting it mechanically, to a robot arm capable of harming you. If you’re reprogramming a robot arm you’re actually communicating with the PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) that controls it, not the actual robot arm. This can be done from a distance.  You’ll be plugged into it with a laptop from a close, but safe, distance away, certainly not within the robot arm’s reach.

If there needs to be actual mechanical adjustment of the robot arm, which is actually quite usual, for example loosening off a bolt or two to extend its reach, there is always a big red button, normally called emergency stop. If this worker at the Volkswagen plant approached the robot arm and the big red button was not depressed who do you blame? Do you blame the worker who died? Did he deserve to die because he missed a trick and forgot to press the emergency stop? Is it the fault of the supervisors in the factory? Or the robot arm refit crew?

There are far too many examples where management blame workers for workplace injuries and deaths in dangerous working environments. The Tories talk of a bonfire of red tape to liberate business from the shackles of health and safety legislation. My response to this is simple, and based on real life experience of working in engineering and manufacturing. I’m not sorry that the 167 dead workers on the Piper Alpha oil rig in 1988 are “stifling business” in 2015: we need health and safety in the workplace now more than ever.

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