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Workplace Safety

Injury Risk Can Remain Even with Automation

Automation may help companies prevent common injuries, but it’s not time to ease diligence on safety.
By: | April 11, 2018 • 3 min read
Topics: Safety | Workers' Comp

Automation increasingly seems to be taking over in workplaces around the world. A 2017 report from PwC suggests that as many as 40 percent of U.S. workers could be replaced by robots by 2030. Many employers see automation as a solution for preventing various common workplace injuries.

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But replacing people with machines is not a fail-safe or a one-size-fits-all solution, nor does it necessarily alleviate the risk of injuries.

While robots have been proven to be effective in certain areas, such as lifting heavy objects or engaging in extremely repetitive work, Scott Smith, director, ergonomics global risk consulting, Aon, said a thorough cost-benefit analysis needs to be conducted first.

“You need to take a look at the analytics,” he said. Companies often fail to conduct a detailed analysis with all stakeholders — including risk management, operations, health and safety, human resources if a union is involved, etc. — and evaluate all data from both a risk and loss perspective before considering a change, Smith added.

In some situations, automation could be a boon. For instance, a semi-automated system in a warehouse that allows an individual to use a robot to load boxes into trucks may not only potentially increase the speed at which the job is completed but may also significantly reduce workers’ comp claims for back and shoulder injuries.

Scott Smith, director of ergonomics global risk consulting, Aon

But Smith said he’s seen companies embrace the idea of automation too eagerly, believing they will transfer their workers’ comp risks to a machine. Smith relayed a situation where a plant replaced a person who loaded aluminum heads onto an assembly line with a $400,000 robot. However, an individual was still required to load the robot.

Smith said the homework needs to be done. Look at the number and expense of particular workers’ comp injuries technology is intended to save. Review how the economy and unemployment could affect future staffing. Find out if the automation would provide financial incentive.

Another consideration is how the technology will interact with individuals. David Langham, deputy chief judge, the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims, said anyone who doesn’t see the potential for robots potentially causing damage to humans is “a little bit naïve.”

“What I’ve seen in the industry is machines built to be safe and humans who make poor decisions around those machines, resulting in injury,” he said. “There’s no such thing as the absolute right technological solution. Every solution you engage has the potential to create another problem.”

“There’s no such thing as the absolute right technological solution. Every solution you engage has the potential to create another problem.” — David Langham, deputy chief judge, the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims

Smith said he has seen pinch and crush injuries occur when workers mix with robots. Pinch injuries can often occur during maintenance, because during the design and installation, the ergonomics of the design rarely take into account maintenance, he said, and those responsible for repairing the machine typically need to work in very cramped, awkward spaces.

Crush injuries are more likely to occur for robots with a bigger footprint that may need 360 degrees of freedom for movement, Smith noted, and often a physical barrier or a light curtain will be needed to prevent injury.

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Langham noted that another potential safety issue with automation is when repairs are outsourced to another company or an independent contractor who is unfamiliar with the company’s equipment and set-up. Another issue is when companies cut back on time spent in safety meetings and awareness because of the addition of robots.

“I think there are going to be a lot of companies that are going to think robots decrease demand for those meetings, and I think that will very probably lead to injuries,” he said. “Employees need to be reminded.” &

Angela Childers is a Chicago-based writer specializing in health care and business management. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession: Curt Gross

This director of risk management sees cyber, IP and reputation risks as evolving threats, but more formal education may make emerging risk professionals better prepared.
By: | June 1, 2018 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

My first non-professional job was working at Burger King in high school. I learned some valuable life lessons there.

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

After taking some accounting classes in high school, I originally thought I wanted to be an accountant. After working on a few Widgets Inc. projects in college, I figured out that wasn’t what I really wanted to do. Risk management found me. The rest is history. Looking back, I am pleased with how things worked out.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

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I think we do a nice job on post graduate education. I think the ARM and CPCU designations give credibility to the profession. Plus, formal college risk management degrees are becoming more popular these days. I know The University of Akron just launched a new risk management bachelor’s program in the fall of 2017 within the business school.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

I think we could do a better job with streamlining certificates of insurance or, better yet, evaluating if they are even necessary. It just seems to me that there is a significant amount of time and expense around generating certificates. There has to be a more efficient way.

R&I: What was the best location and year for the RIMS conference and why?

Selfishly, I prefer a destination with a direct flight when possible. RIMS does a nice job of selecting various locations throughout the country. It is a big job to successfully pull off a conference of that size.

Curt Gross, Director of Risk Management, Parker Hannifin Corp.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in the risk management and insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

Definitely the change in nontraditional property & casualty exposures such as intellectual property and reputational risk. Those exposures existed way back when but in different ways. As computer networks become more and more connected and news travels at a more rapid pace, it just amplifies these types of exposures. Sometimes we have to think like the perpetrator, which can be difficult to do.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

I hate to sound cliché — it’s quite the buzz these days — but I would have to say cyber. It’s such a complex risk involving nontraditional players and motives. Definitely a challenging exposure to get your arms around. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll really know the true exposure until there is more claim development.

R&I: What insurance carrier do you have the highest opinion of?

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Our captive insurance company. I’ve been fortunate to work for several companies with a captive, each one with a different operating objective. I view a captive as an essential tool for a successful risk management program.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

I can’t point to just one. I have and continue to be lucky to work for really good managers throughout my career. Each one has taken the time and interest to develop me as a professional. I certainly haven’t arrived yet and welcome feedback to continue to try to be the best I can be every day.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

I would like to think I have and continue to bring meaningful value to my company. However, I would have to say my family is my proudest accomplishment.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

Favorite movie is definitely “Good Will Hunting.”

R&I: What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever eaten at?

Tough question to narrow down. If my wife ran a restaurant, it would be hers. We try to have dinner as a family as much as possible. If I had to pick one restaurant though, I would say Fire Food & Drink in Cleveland, Ohio. Chef Katz is a culinary genius.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

The Grand Canyon. It is just so vast. A close second is Stonehenge.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

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A few, actually. Up until a few years ago, I owned a sport bike (motorcycle). Of course, I wore the proper gear, took a safety course and read a motorcycle safety book. Also, I have taken a few laps in a NASCAR [race car] around Daytona International Speedway at 180 mph. Most recently, trying to ride my daughter’s skateboard.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

The Dalai Lama. A world full of compassion, tolerance and patience and free of discrimination, racism and violence, while perhaps idealistic, sounds like a wonderful place to me.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

I really enjoy the company I work for and my role, because I get the opportunity to work with various functions. For example, while mostly finance, I get to interact with legal, human resources, employee health and safety, to name a few.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

I asked my son. He said, “Risk management and insurance.” (He’s had the benefit of bring-your-kid-to-work day.)

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]