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Zender: What Robots Mean for Workers' Comp

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History provides interesting insights into the debate around automation and employment.

Matt Zender

Matt Zender

In 1632, King Charles I of England banned casting of buckets, for fear that allowing it would ruin the livelihood of the craftsmen who were making the buckets the old-fashioned way.

In 1811, the Luddites in England started a movement where they smashed machines that they viewed as threats to employment. These examples have occurred with increasing frequency since the Industrial Revolution began. Not coincidentally, the per capita income in the world doubled every 50 years afterward the revolution.

According to a Pew study, 52% of Americans think that much of our work can be done by robots, but only 38% believe that it could replace the type of work that they do. Additionally, 76% of Americans believe that robots would increase the inequality between the rich and poor.

But standing in the way of change, when viewed through the lens of history, has rarely worked. The key is to focus on the dislocated individuals and provide training to make sure that they can move into new positions. Historically, new positions tend to be more highly compensated, fueling an upward cycle.

It is clear that the pace of change and automation is increasing. In January, the parent company of Giant, Martin’s and Stop & Shop said it would introduce 500 robots to its supermarkets this year. Sure enough, if you Google “Marty the Robot”  — a large, gray cone with a bright smile and googly eyes — you will find out that he is hard at work at 40 Stop & Shops in New Jersey, finding and reporting spills in the aisles and calling for a mop.

It will be interesting to see which retailers follow suit. Walmart has given robots a thumbs up. Target? A thumbs down.

The pros and cons of automation are widely written about. The pros: eliminating mindless tasks, saving money on employee costs, having a safer working environment. The cons: reducing human contact with the customer, eliminating jobs for people who need then and decreasing flexibility in the workplace as automated tasks occur at programmed times.

As providers of workers’ comp insurance, we are watching the rise of automation in the workplace closely. One of the ways we do this is to analyze actual claims that are submitted by our insureds, which are most often small to medium-size businesses. In the restaurant sector, we analyzed more than 84,000 claims. and in the retail area we looked at more than 20,000.

One area where we are convinced automation could help reduce worker injuries is in coffee shops. Workers who operate espresso machines eight hours a day are reporting repetitive motion injuries akin to tennis elbow. In fact, so-called "barista wrist” is now a recognized medical condition.

Our study of workers’ comp claims in the restaurant industry found that cafés had more lost time due to injuries than any other restaurant type. And the cause of the highest number of days needed to return to work in cafés — 366 days — was due to wrist injuries.

In a parallel from the retail sector, workers in hair salons are reporting hand, wrist and arm injuries from drying hair with a blow dryer, setting the stage for a new condition that could be called the “Brazilian blowout arm.” Perhaps an innovative, automated robot blowout could eliminate these repetitive motion injuries.

Among the most dangerous and expensive injuries in our retail analysis (which includes some wholesale) came from workers engaged in the preparation of meat, poultry and fish, which involves cutting hazards caused by sharp tools and machinery. The average paid claim for a worker who sustains a cut ranges from $4,200-$7,800, depending on whether it was caused by a non-powered tool, by a powered tool or by being caught in or between machinery.

But once again, repetitive motion injuries in meat, fish and poultry preparation are by far the most expensive at $16,200 for the average paid claim. Clearly, this is an area where more automation would be helpful. 

All of this gets us back to our original thesis that history has shown that automation is a net positive for workers which, over time, leads to people taking higher-paying jobs. Yes, jobs are eliminated, for sure. With machines come risk and injuries. That’s undeniable. But it is also clear that robots will take over the mindless, thankless (and dangerous) jobs and likely lead to a workplace that is safer overall.

With all that said, there is one robot that I don’t want to see and that’s “Matt," the workers’ comp insurance executive.

Matt Zender is senior vice president of workers’ compensation strategy at AmTrust. This blog post is reprinted by permission from InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com.

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