Automation Has Mixed Impact on Workers’ Comp Claims

05.17.2017


By Liz Carey

National (WorkersCompensation.com) - As technology provides improvements to accuracy, productivity and costs, it doesn’t necessarily reduce workers’ compensation costs. 

According to a study by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne with the Oxford University Engineering Sciences Department, a rise in automation and robotics in American workplaces could lead to up to 47 percent of U.S. employees losing their jobs. 

And as the use of robots and automation grows in the workforce, many assume that workers’ compensation costs will naturally go down.

But Woody Hill, Vice President of Safety Services with Texas Mutual Insurance Company, said automation may be decreasing the number of automation claims, but the dollar amount associated with those claims is much higher.

“What we’re seeing is that the claim amounts are rising because of the severity of the injuries,” Hill said. “The claims are more for catastrophic or fatal injuries.”

Hill said his experience has been that the machines don’t jam or stall often. But when they do, the incidents happen so infrequently, that employees forget proper procedures like “lock out, tag out” to ensure their safety.

In June 2016, 20-year-old Regina Allen Elsea was employed at a Cussetta, AL manufacturing plant making metal parts for Hyundai and Kia, when the robotic machine she and three other co-workers on stopped. Although the employees called for maintenance, when help didn’t arrive, Elsea entered the robot’s station to clear out the fault. The robot restarted and crushed Elsea inside the machine.

After an investigation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited Ajin USA with 23 violations, including failure to utilize energy control procedures to prevent machinery from starting up during maintenance and servicing; and cited staffing organizations Alliance HR, Inc. and Joynus Staffing with two violations each for failure to utilize specific safety procedures to control potentially hazardous stored energy during maintenance and servicing and not providing or ensuring employees had locks to properly shutdown machinery.

“This senseless tragedy could have been prevented if Regina Elsea’s employers had followed proper safety precautions,” Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said in a press release. “In addition, it is unfortunate that Hyundai and Kia, who set strict specifications on the parts they purchase from their suppliers, appear to be less concerned with the safety of the workers who manufacture those parts.”

Dr. Michaels traveled to Korea to meet with Hyundai and Kia’s top managers to warn them of the conditions at their suppliers’ plants, and to warn them that their policies were endangering employees.

“Kia and Hyundai’s on-demand production targets are so high that workers at their suppliers are often required to work six and sometimes seven days a week to meet the targets,” Dr. Michaels said. “It appears that – to reduce its own costs in meeting these targets – this supplier cut corners on safety, at the expense of workers’ lives and limbs.”

Continual training about the dangers machines pose is the key to preventing those accidents, Hill said. It’s also important to train employees in a language that they understand, he said. Too often laborers whose native language is not English are trained in English, leading them to not fully understand the training.

“Training someone is not the answer,” Hill said. “Good companies are the ones who continually train and call out employees for unsafe conditions. Training starts day one and is reinforced often.”

Eric Carleson, executive director for Associated California Loggers, said the use of machines, called mechanical logging, is an asset in the field.

By and large, mechanical logging has been a positive development in the logging industry,” Carleson said. “Loggers are able to work safely within the cab of the equipment and are less likely to be injured than being out in the woods.

Margaret Wagner, CEO with Signature Network Plus, a California medical provider network, said with technology and automation comes unintended consequences, but with a better preparedness to deal with issues, determine whether or not they are work-related and get better care to the patient more quickly.

“Some readers will remember the days before we all had laptops,” Wagner said. “Some may even remember learning to type on a manual typewriter. As the workforce evolved utilizing laptops in the administrative/clerical environment we have seen Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) losses. With the aging workforce we now see Cumulative Trauma Cases. Technology in medicine can now evaluate the objective findings and subjective complaints to determine if the loss is a result of the type of work or a matter of the normal aging process, or in some cases maybe even both.”

Wagner said improvements in automation also help medical staff evaluate injuries more quickly and accurately, and get injured workers the care they need on a timelier basis.

But, Wagner said, no amount of technology can replace the need for human interaction.

“Even though automation is important in a technology driven world, there still needs to be human involvement,” she said. “Computers do not have compassion. Computers cannot see the fear or bewilderment in an injured worker’s eyes when a serious loss occurs. There is nothing as important as human intervention and a hand on the shoulder of an injured worker assuring him/her that they will be getting the best appropriate care for their injury.”

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