No, it’s not publicity for an upcoming movie. A worker at one of Volkswagen’s production plants in Germany was killed by a robot on Monday.
Initial investigation showed the victim, a 22-year-old, was part of a team tasked to set up the stationary robot. Along the process of putting it up, the industrial robot suddenly grabbed the worker and pushed him against a metal plate, crushing his chest. They were reportedly inside a safety cage when the accident happened, German news reports said.
The incident happened in Volkswagen’s Baunatal plant in Germany. Deutsche Welle reports the plant employs 15,500 workers working on transmissions and electric motors. The robot being set up grabs auto parts and manipulates them. It normally operates within a confined area at the plant.
Heiko Hillwig, Volkswagen spokesman, said human error was likely the cause of the accident. Prosecutors said this is the first of its kind in Germany where a robot killed a person. The Financial Times states accidents concerning robots hardly occurred in Germany because the companies made sure to keep them behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans. But “in this instance the contractor was standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred.”
Ryan Calo, professor of robotics and cyberlaw at the University of Washington School of Law, told Vox Media that it actually isn’t unusual that people sometimes get killed by robots. “It is very important to follow established security protocols around robots and especially to stay out of the danger zone unless you are sure the robot is off.”
German prosecutors looking into the accident said they have yet to decide whether to bring charges, “and, if so, against whom.”
Statistics compiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration showed robot related accidents has killed at least one person a year in the U.S. alone.
Calo said the data came up because “robots are very much on the mind.”
He stressed however there is no robot-armageddon thing that is happening. “We should keep this all in perspective – more people are killed by bees or sharks than robots, at least in the United States.”
The U.S. Labor Department seemed to validate Calo’s observations. “Studies indicate that many robot accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment,” the department said on its website. “During many of these operations the worker may temporarily be within the robot’s working envelope where unintended operations could result in injuries.”