Mistaken for a Box of Peppers? Robot Crushes Worker
A South Korean plant worker was crushed to death by an industrial robot at a vegetable packing plant. First reports indicated that the robot mistakenly identified the worker as a box. Although that might not be 100% true, it still is a frightening scenario.
According to police, a man in the southern county of Goseong died after an industrial robot grabbed and pressed him into a conveyor belt, resulting in injuries to the man’s head and chest that ultimately led to his death.
The worker was an employee of a company that installs robotic workers into plants. The machine was one of two pick and place robots utilized by the facility that packages vegetables such as bell peppers. These robotic machines are not uncommon in South Korea’s agricultural communities.
The victim was called to the plant to examine whether the machine was working properly. The man, described as a robotics company employee, was checking the sensors on the robot ahead of a test run at the plant that was planned for Wednesday. The test run had reportedly been pushed back two days due to the robot malfunctioning. As the employee worked late into the night to make sure the robot would function smoothly, the robotic arm grabbed him and forced him onto a conveyor belt, crushing his face and chest. He was rushed to a hospital but succumbed to his injuries.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Kang Jin-gi, lead investigator at the Goseong Police Station, indicated the machine “wasn’t an advanced, artificial intelligence-powered robot, but a machine that simply picks up boxes and puts them on pallets.”
One unnamed police official suggested that the victim may have had a box in his hands at the time of the incident, which might explain why the robot snatched him up. “It’s clearly not a case where a robot confused a human with a box, this wasn’t a very sophisticated machine.”
South Korea has had other safety accidents involving industrial robots in recent years. In March, a manufacturing robot crushed and injured a worker who was examining the machine at an auto parts factory in Gunsan. Last year, a robot installed near a conveyor belt fatally crushed a worker at a milk factory in Pyeongtaek.
An official from the agricultural complex said the company has come to rely upon robots more and humans less and that the accident occurred after the facility attempted to make robots more efficient. The official added that “a precise and safe system must be established.”
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South Korea has been dealing with a shrinking workforce, so robots, smart and dumb, have become commonplace.
Nikkei Asia reported last year that the rising minimum wage and a scarcity of workers have made robots price-competitive in a variety of industries. For example, in the food industry, robot waiters and chefs, introduced just four years ago, are now in restaurants across the country. Robotic chefs can fry 50 chickens in an hour or cook up spicy rice cakes for five people in under ten minutes. Concierges are also being replaced by machines, minus the human charm of course.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea is the fourth-largest robotic market in the world. It has 1,000 robots installed per 10,000 employees as of 2021, making it the country with the highest industrial robot density in the world by a large margin.
I know this will date me, but when I think of robots, my memories take me back to an old TV show called “Lost in Space.” On that show, when the robot, which was an integral part of the cast, sensed danger it would shout out, “Danger, danger. Warning, warning.” Now it seems that the robots themselves are something to fear.