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How Does the Accident in Germany Affect Industrial Robot Safety?

POSTED 07/06/2015

by Patrick Davison, Director of Standards Development, Robotic Industries Association

Last week, an unfortunate fatality involving an industrial robot and a worker occurred at a Volkswagen plant in Baunatal, Germany.  The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) and its member companies express its deepest sympathies to the victim’s family, friends, and colleagues.

According to news sources, the worker was part of a contracting crew responsible for setting up the robot, and was working inside the safeguarded space when the incident occurred.  A second member of the contracting crew was standing outside of the safeguarded space and was not harmed.

The international media response to the incident was aggressive, swift, and expounded on topics that were not relevant to the incident.  A Washington Post article referenced the dangers of Artificial Intelligence and posed the question, “Should the world kill killer robots before it’s too late?”  In another story, a Financial Times journalist with a name similar to a popular character in The Terminator franchise started a social media frenzy with a tweet.  A video from Ireland expounds on random tweets regarding the incident with backdrop footage of the Honda ASIMO robot and manual automotive operations.  Also, according to this article on an automotive news and gossip site, a Times of India article posted a photo of a gun-wielding toy robot beside the story.

For over thirty years, the robotics industry has been involved promoting safe work practices by sponsoring efforts to create national and international safety standards designed to keep workers safe while working with robots, and require manufacturers to incorporate a number of safety features in each robot.  Accident statistics in Germany show that severe industrial accidents (i.e. those resulting in fatality or loss of limbs) are very rare, ranging from three to 15 annually from 2005 to 2012, despite the fact that Germany has the third highest per-capita robot deployment in the world.  In the United States, U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains statistics noting that fatalities involving industrial robots in the U.S. have occurred at an average rate of approximately one per year over the past 15 years.  In fact, industrial robot accidents are so uncommon that they are not tracked by reporting agencies, but instead are grouped with other industrial accidents, and the incidence rate of industrial fatalities is low and trending downward in both the United States and the European Union.  In many cases, robots perform dangerous jobs that help to remove human operators from harm.

Nonetheless, this incident serves as an unfortunate reminder that accidents can occur and their consequences can be tragic.  OSHA provides guidance regarding the types of occupational tasks that can lead to accidents:

“Studies indicate that many robot accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment. During many of these operations the worker may temporarily be within the robot's working envelope where unintended operations could result in injuries.”

At the moment, the German authorities are performing investigations regarding the incident, and have refrained from distributing any information regarding the incident other than what has already been reported.  The robot safety standards development committees will remain vigilant in reviewing the incident reports when they become available, so that we can strive to improve guidance or best practices to prevent future incidents from occurring.