Research/studies Robot Workers

Who (or what) gets blamed when robots are involved in workplace safety incidents?

Lime green robot arm with box
Photo: MJ_Prototype/iStockphoto

Raleigh, NC — When workplace safety incidents involving autonomous robots occur, workers may be quick to blame the machine, results of a recent study from North Carolina State University suggest.

As part of the study, researchers asked 164 participants to read a series of workplace scenarios that described human-robot team task failures. Each scenario was written to emphasize the role the worker, the robot or environmental factors had in an incident. After reading each scenario, the participants were asked to assign blame among the three roles.

When the scenarios involved a worker operating the robot, the participants typically assigned responsibility to the human. However, when a robot was working on its own while an employee monitored it, the participants typically blamed the machine.

“The finding is somewhat intuitive, but it addresses a fundamental issue: When do we transfer responsibility for an error from a human to a robot?” Doug Gillan, study co-author and professor of psychology at NC State, said in an Oct. 17 press release.

“The study also raises questions about how quickly autonomous robots may be assimilated into the workplace. Do employers want to buy robots that may be more efficient, but can be blamed for errors – making it more difficult to hold human employees accountable? Or do employers want to stick to robots that are viewed solely as tools to be controlled by humans?”

The study was published online Oct. 15 in Human Factors, the journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

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