A worker at a South Korean vegetable packaging plant died after he was grabbed and pressed against a conveyor belt by an industrial robot, raising public concern about the safety of industrial robots and the false sense of security they may give to humans working nearby.
The man, whose name was not disclosed, was an employee of a company that installs industrial robots and was sent to the plant in Goseong County, South Gyeongsang Province, to examine whether the machine was working properly, according to local police.
The robot was one of two pick-and-place robots used at the facility that packages bell peppers and other vegetables exported to other Asian countries, such as Japan and China. The robots are designed to pick up boxes of vegetables from a conveyor belt and place them on a pallet.
The machine that caused the death on Tuesday was one of two pick-and-place robots used at the facility, which packages bell peppers and other vegetables exported to other Asian countries, police said. Such machines are common in South Korea’s agricultural communities, which are struggling with a declining and aging workforce.
“It wasn’t an advanced, artificial intelligence-powered robot, but a machine that simply picks up boxes and puts them on pallets,” said Kang Jin-gi, who heads the investigations department at Gosong Police Station. He said police were working with related agencies to determine whether the machine had technical defects or safety issues.
The worker was rushed to a nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead on arrival. The police are investigating whether the machine had technical defects or safety issues, or whether human error was involved.
Another police official, who did not want to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters, said police were also looking into the possibility of human error. The robot’s sensors are designed to identify boxes, and security video 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 said.
Industrial robots are widely used in various sectors in South Korea, such as manufacturing, logistics, and agriculture, to increase productivity and efficiency. According to data from the International Federation of Robotics, in 2021, South Korea boasted the highest density of industrial robots in the world, with 1,000 per 10,000 employees. This figure was more than three times the number in China during the same year. A significant portion of South Korea’s industrial robots are utilized in major manufacturing plants, particularly in the electronics and auto-making sectors.
However, the tragic accident shows that industrial robots can also pose a serious threat to human lives if they are not properly maintained or supervised, and that workers may not be aware of the potential dangers of working near them.
“Industrial robots are supposed to make our lives easier and safer, but this tragic accident shows that they can also harm us if they are not properly maintained or supervised,” a labor rights activist said, calling for stricter regulations and standards for the use of industrial robots.
“We express our deep condolences to the victim and his family. We will cooperate fully with the authorities to find out the exact cause of the accident and prevent any recurrence,” a spokesperson for the plant said.
- An industrial robot crushed a worker to death at a vegetable packing plant in South Korea, ABC News, November 8, 2023
- Industrial robot crushes worker to death as he checks whether it was working properly, CBS News, November 9, 2023
- Worker crushed to death by robot that mistook him for a box of veggies, New York Post, November 9, 2023
- Goseong, Korea, worker crushed to death by robot at plant, New York Post, November 9, 2023