Innovation

Robot kills worker on assembly line, raising concerns about human-robot collaboration

A federal lawsuit alleges that a robot bypassed safety regulations, entering an unauthorized area and killing a human worker.

A Michigan man is suing a set of robotics manufacturers, alleging negligence and design defects after a malfunctioning robot killed his wife while she was working as a maintenance technician.

The victim, Wanda Holbrook, performed machine inspection and maintenance for Ventra Ionia, a stamping and molding company out of Ionia, Michigan. According to court documents filed in federal court, the incident occurred in 2015, after the robot first entered the section where Wanda was working, which it was not authorized to be in.

"Upon information and belief, Wanda was working in either section 140 or 150 within the '100' cell, when a robot from section 130 took Wanda by surprise, entering the section she was working in," the document said. "Upon entering the section, the robot hit and crushed Wanda's head between a hitch assembly it was attempting to place in the fixture of section 140, and a hitch assembly that was already in the fixture, and Wanda suffered tremendous fright, shock and conscious pain and suffering."

assembly.jpg
microolga, Getty Images/iStockphoto

SEE: Hiring kit: Robotics engineer (Tech Pro Research)

Holbrook was eventually found unresponsive by her coworkers. She was later pronounced dead at the scene by first responders, the documents noted.

The documents claim that one or more safety systems or devices had failed, which led to the incident. The documents also claim that the cell in which Holbrook was working failed to meet certain OSHA, American National Standard (ANSI), American Welding Society (AWS), and Robotic Industries Association (RIA) standards as well.

The facility has safety doors in place to prevent robots from coming into unauthorized areas, but the operating system for the cell in question allowed the robot to bypass the safety doors, according to the court files. The documents also stated that the operating logic in the cell should have prevented the robot from trying to load additional hitch assemblies in fixtures where they were already loaded.

As the manufacturing industry and many others become increasingly automated, the case highlights the need for proper safety protocol and regulations to prevent future incidents. The EU recently called for a code of ethical conduct around robots to ensure the safety and security of those working with them.

While any death is a tragedy, it also must be put into perspective. Humans and robots have been working together in the manufacturing industry for decades with few grievous problems. According to a 2014 New York Times report, citing OSHA, at the time robots had been responsible for 33 workplace deaths over the past 30 years. According to the National Association of Manufacturing, there are 12.3 million manufacturing workers in the US, who account for roughly 9% of the country's workforce.

However, as robots and automation expand into other industries and as the technology advances, safety will remain a paramount concern to make sure that workers are not put at any additional risk.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. A Michigan man is suing a set of robotics manufacturers after his wife, a maintenance technician, was killed on the job by a malfunctioning robot.
  2. The work area had allegedly failed to meet safety standards, and the robot moved into an unauthorized area before the incident occured, court filings claim.
  3. The incident highlights the need for strong safety standards and regulations around robotics and automation technology in the workplace.

Also see

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox