When Robots Kill: A Root Cause Analysis

When Robots Kill: A Root Cause Analysis

Riya Vinayak (Management Development Institute, Gurgaon, India) and Radha R. Sharma (Management Development Institute, Gurgaon, India)
DOI: 10.4018/IJHCITP.2019070104
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Robots are increasingly interacting with people at the workplace as users or bystanders, hence, they ought to be reliable and safe. The rationale behind the study is to understand the causes of the rising workplace robot accidents by analysing a particular case for greater understanding. The article provides diverse perspectives on the probable causes and consequences of robot-related accidents and offers suggestions to mitigate these. It involves the application of the root cause analysis technique to identify the reasons behind the robot-related accident that resulted in the death of a worker and suggests remedies to do away with any such recurrence in the future. The study endeavours to bridge the research gap pertaining to robot-related accidents in the automotive industry.
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“Science is a good servant but a bad master.”

This age-old adage makes us reflect on the multiple applications of science and how we can leverage it to the optimum. Humans play an important role in maximising benefits out of technology, however, these automated equipment have some unpredictable consequences for the humans. There are several benefits of robots like objective feedback, better decision making and avoiding fights (Chamorro-Premuzic & Ahmetoglu, 2016). However, despite multiple applications and benefits, technology can also be hazardous at times. Robot is one such example of the booming technology and science which is of great help in the fields of medicine, transport, agriculture, commercial services and factories but robots can also cause fatal accidents, if not handled carefully.

A rise in robot related deaths in some parts of the world highlight some dilemmas in the design of safe semi-autonomous and autonomous systems. These systems have the risk of causing harm and safety is one of the crucial issues to prevent the robots from entering the human environments (Marvel et al., 2015; Heinzmann & Zelinsky, 2003; Ikuta et al., 2003). This subject is pivotal in this era of ever-increasing human- robot interaction. Robots can be collaborative co-workers and boost the human capabilities in multiple ways (Shah, 2016). However, some alternate applications of robots have prompted the pioneers in this field to call for a ban on the killer robots (Gibbs, 2017).

Many robot related accidents have taken place recently which draw attention to the lack of proper safety at work. One such incident had taken place at a leading automaker plant in Germany where a contractor was killed by a robot at work (Huggler, 2015). Another one occurred in Michigan where an experienced female worker lost her life due to a malfunctioning robot arm (Agerholm, 2017). Similarly, a worker was killed by a robot at an auto ancillary company in North India (Rao & Yadav, 2015). Therefore, the aim of this study is to understand the causes of such accidents and provide appropriate recommendations for their prevention. When the causes are properly known, the chances for appropriate interventions will increase which may help prevent such accidents in the future.

There has been little research in the field of robot accidents as compared to that of the construction, transport accidents etc. (Chi et al., 2012; Abdelhamid & Everett, 2000; Qiao et al., 2009; Akerstedt, 2000; Newman & Goode, 2015). This research is timely and relevant as the foray and impact of technology in human lives is huge. Paucity of research in this area and geography has provided impetus to undertake this study as an endeavour to bridge the knowledge gap. In a developing nation like India, there are many safety concerns which need to be addressed. Thus, the present study focuses on a robot accident in an SME in the automotive industry in India.

The Incident

Recently, a robot killed a worker at an auto ancillary company in North India. The razor-sharp welding sticks protruding from the robot penetrated through the worker and he was killed viciously. This brutal incident occurred when the worker had moved very close to the robotic machine for placing the metal sheet in the right place. Though he was immediately taken to the hospital, but he had lost his life by that time. The victim, Shankar Lal (26)1, from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, was a loader in the auto ancillary company. Post the incident, the livid workers ceased operations at the factory to protest and a meeting was scheduled between the union and the management. The police investigated later by interacting with both the workers and the management; the body was sent to the worker's village and his family was in a state of shock and grief-stricken. An investigation at the company revealed that the robot was pre-programmed to weld the metal sheets it lifts. One of these sheets had gotten dislodged so Lal approached to adjust it from behind the machine. That was when the welding sticks attached to the robotic device pierced his abdomen resulting in his death eventually (Rao & Yadav, 2015).

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