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

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

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

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That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

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Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]