An industrial robot in South Korea has killed a man, in the latest accident involving robotic machines.

According to the Associated Press, police reported on Thursday that an industrial robot crushed a worker to death at a vegetable packaging plant in South Korea. An investigation is underway as to whether the machine was unsafe or had potential defects.

There have been other human fatalities involving industrial robots over the years. For example in July 2015 a man was killed in a Volkswagen factory in Baunatal (near Frankfurt, Germany). The man who died was working as part of a team of contractors installing the robot.

Death by robot

The 22-year-old man had been badly injured in 2015 when the robot grabbed him and crushed him against a metal plate. The unfortunate worker later died in in hospital from his injuries.

Now eight years later, the AP cited police officials in the southern county of Goseong, in South Korea, as saying that the factory worker died of head and chest injuries on Tuesday, when the man was grabbed and pressed against a conveyor belt by the machine’s robotic arms.

The AP reported that the police did not release his name, but said the man was an employee of a company that installs industrial robots and was sent to the plant to examine whether the machine was working properly.

The machine was reportedly one of two pick-and-place robots used at the facility that packages bell peppers and other vegetables exported to other Asian countries, police said.

“It wasn’t an advanced, artificial intelligence-powered robot, but a machine that simply picks up boxes and puts them on pallets,” Kang Jin-gi, who heads the investigations department at Gosong Police Station, was quoted as saying.

He reportedly said the police were working with related agencies to determine whether the machine had technical defects or safety issues.

Another police official, who did not want to be named because he wasn’t authorised to talk to reporters, said police were also looking into the possibility of human error.

The AP reported that the robot’s sensors are designed to identify boxes, and security camera footage apparently indicated the man had moved near the robot with a box in his hands, which likely triggered the machine’s reaction, the official said.

“It’s clearly not a case where a robot confused a human with a box – this wasn’t a very sophisticated machine,” he reportedly said.

Other accidents

Industrial robots are commonplace in factories around the world, but accidents do happen from time to time .

The AP reported that in March, a manufacturing robot crushed and seriously injured a worker who was examining the machine at an auto parts factory in Gunsan, South Korea.

And in 2022 a robot installed near a conveyor belt fatally crushed a worker at a milk factory in Pyeongtaek.

A study recently found that from 1992 to 2017, workplace robots were responsible for 41 recorded deaths in the United States – and that is likely an underestimate.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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