Marie Donlon | July 08, 2022

A study from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania asserts that Americans working alongside industrial robots are more likely to suffer from adverse mental health effects, and thus more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

Although industrial robots are designed to take over strenuous and physically demanding tasks in the warehouse and manufacturing spaces, thereby reducing physical risks to human laborers, they are also reportedly increasing adverse mental health issues among human workers who feel increased pressure to compete with such robots.

“There is a wide interest in understanding labor market effects of robots. And evidence of how robots affected employment and wages of workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector,” the researchers explained.

“However, we still know very little about the effects on physical and mental health. On one hand, robots could take some of the most strenuous, physically intensive, and risky tasks reducing workers’ risk. On the other hand, the competition with robots may increase the pressure on workers who may lose their jobs or forced to retrain. Of course, labor market institutions may play an important role, particularly in a transition phase.”

Researchers used data from workplaces and organizations on workplace injuries in the U.S. to discover that, overall, workplace-related injuries were reduced by 1.2 cases per 100 workers, while U.S. populations with more people working alongside robots demonstrated a dramatic increase of 37.8 cases per 100,000 people in drug or alcohol related deaths. Additionally, communities where people work alongside robots experienced a subtle increase in suicide rates and mental health issues.

The researchers also looked at the impact of industrial robots on workers in Germany, finding that while both the U.S. and Germany experienced fewer workplace injuries thanks to greater exposure to robots in the workplace, the results were different regarding mental health.

German workers reportedly did not experience any of the significant mental-health changes that American factory workers did when exposed to robotics.

This, according to the research, is due to the higher employment protections in place in Germany, ensuring that robot exposure in the workplace did not lead to disruptive job losses in that country. As such, the report suggests that in scenarios where workers were less protected, competition with robots reportedly resulted in an increase in mental health problems.

The report, Industrial robots, workers’ safety, and health, appears in the journal Labour Economics.