Deaths at work have declined dramatically during the last century; however, despite the radical improvement of health and safety standards around the world, tragic events continue to occur. This decline can be attributed to fewer working hours, better working conditions, and computer scientists succeeding in “developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them” (Joy). The use of industrial robots in the workplace presents an occupational hazard that might result in severe injuries and deaths.
With the ever-increasing exposure of workers to machines that are characterized by high strength and endurance, concerns about employees’ safety become more prominent in the arena of public discussion. Another characteristic of autonomous industrial machines is that they “do not require any deep cognitive ability, but on-board intelligence is necessary if the robot is to perform significant tasks autonomously, and actuation is needed to enable the robot to exert forces upon the environment” (Lin 319). Attempts to rethink technology and introduce ethical design have reduced the number of fatal incidents; nonetheless, even a single robot-related fatality is too many (Feng 207).
This paper aims to analyze a case study in which a worker was pressed against a machine by a robot and sustained fatal injuries. The paper will assign the degrees of blame to the worker, a company that has designed the system, and the company operating the factory. Strategies and recommendations for preventing such incidents from occurring in the future will also be discussed.
Blame vs. Responsibility
When assigning a degree of blame for the manslaughter, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between blame and responsibility. The difference between the two concepts is based on the fact that it is impossible to calculate the degree of responsibility without taking into consideration all relevant characteristics of an event, whereas to assign the degree of blame one has to only consider an epistemic state of an agent. In other words, the degree of blame, which refers to whether an agent acting has to be blamed for its outcome, cannot be separated from an actual epistemic state, whereas the degree of responsibility is associated with what an agent should have known.
The analysis of blame attribution for the manslaughter starts with considering a degree of moral blame that can be assigned to the company that has designed the system and the company that operates the factory, in which the tragic incident occurred. A company can be viewed as a group of people who are collectively engaged in certain business activities. It is important to distinguish between the law, which can attribute liabilities, intentions, and rights among others to companies and corporate entities, and moral blame which should be analyzed irrespective of the legal status of the companies. Furthermore, by making a presupposition that the companies can or should be blamed for the manslaughter, one dismisses the issue of corporate versus individual moral responsibility for the action, thereby including the organizations in the category of agents. For a comprehensive analysis of the incident, it is vitally important to determine whether the companies can be considered agents and bear blame for their actions.
The decision to accept the view that either the company that has developed the system or the company operating the factory is responsible for the tragic incident is immensely significant because it is associated with the deterrence of similar occurrences in the future. It has to do with the fact that the punishment of an entire organization does not necessarily equate with the punishment of responsible individuals. Even if the robot’s manufacturer pays a hefty penalty for the incident, parties that should be held responsible for the act may be left unpunished. Furthermore, it is possible to envision a situation in which individuals who have designed the robot system are not removed from their jobs and are still in a position to make similar mistakes that can result in more deaths and injuries. There is another reason why holding an entire company accountable for manslaughter is morally impermissible. The companies consist of numerous departments and divisions that are in turn comprised of individual employees. By placing those workers and managers who are and who are not directly responsible for the faulty system design into one category and subjecting them to collective public embarrassment, one accepts that to punish guilty it is permissible to allow innocent suffering.
It is possible to object to the argument that it is impermissible to punish collective entities for actions of individuals comprising them. Such objection is based on the assumption that a company is an agent that is distinct from its employees. This ontological assumption is based on the fact that corporate entities have properties that are distinct from those of their members: a corporate mission, contracts, and property among others. However, this objection can be disarmed by showing that the premise that a company can be considered an individual entity because it has characteristics that cannot be attributed to people comprising it is a logical mistake. No one would deny that there are collections of objects properties of which can be attributed to the collection as a whole and not to its constituents. Precisely because the collection of objects is not identical to its components, it is reasonable to expect it to have characteristics that are not shared by other components. Therefore, those who attribute an agency to a group of individuals fall prey to the fallacy of division. It is important to avoid making fallacious assumptions about groups and their members during the process of blame attribution because, as has been discussed above, it might lead to the situation in which innocent individuals are blamed for the acts of guilty ones.
Individuals and the Worker
After having established that neither the company that has designed the robotic system nor the company operating the factory can be collectively blamed for the manslaughter, it is necessary to determine the degree of blame that can be assigned to individuals who participated in the creation of the system or those who are responsible for safeguarding factory personnel during maintenance activities. However, before proceeding with analyzing the responsibility of the involved parties, one has to consider a principle of respect for autonomy. This principle is an important element in ethical theory, and it states that “decision-making should focus on allowing people to be autonomous—to be able to make decisions that apply to their lives” (Chonko).
Using this principle as guidance, one can conclude that the worker was responsible for following the procedures for preventing injuries during robot maintenance. Safety managers of the company owning the factory have designed proper safety precautions for removing energy sources from machines during maintenance. Moreover, to eliminate robot-related accidents stemming from mechanical hazards associated with moving parts of robots, the designers of the robotic system have developed electrical interlocks stopping robots from injuring workers when a physical barrier is removed. In the case under discussion, the worker neglected safety protocols for maintenance of equipment and entered an operational area by jumping over the protective fence.
Members of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) are requested to follow its code ethics that is comprised of imperatives helping computer professionals to make ethical decisions associated with their work. The creators of the robot system have followed imperatives of the code that call for contributing to society and human well-being and avoiding harm to others (ACM). The second moral imperative of the code that calls for minimizing “the possibility of indirectly harming others” through minimization of “malfunctions by following generally accepted standards for system design and testing” (ACM) is aligned with the principle of beneficence. The principle stipulates that when an agent is confronted with an ethical challenge that should “do what is right and good” (Chonko).
The principle of beneficence is associated with utilitarian ethical theories that state that if an individual can predict consequences of their actions they have to opt for a choice “that yields the greatest benefit to the most people” (Chonko). Such a choice would be ethically correct. Taking into consideration the fact that the designers of the system have acted according to the principle of beneficence and utilitarian ethical theories when designing electrical interlocks, backup sensors, and physical barriers for preventing injuries of workers by moving robots, it can be argued that no degree of blame has to be assigned to them. However, safety engineers working at the company that owns the factory have some degree of blame for the manslaughter. It has to do with the fact that they have not conducted adequate safety training necessary for ensuring that workers working in proximity to robots do not enter operational areas. Furthermore, supervisors are also to blame for missing the unplanned physical encounter of their employees with the robot. However, the highest degree of blame for the incident is on the worker who neglected safety protocols for maintenance of equipment and entered an operational area by crossing the protective fence.
To reduce the likelihood of similar incidents, the factory owner has to ensure that safety engineers regularly conduct safety training and refresher training programs. Furthermore, they will have to take steps necessary to make sure that there is adequate illumination around all working areas, which will help supervisors to quickly notice workers who cross-protective fences to perform maintenance activities on robots that are not disconnected from power sources. Furthermore, physical barriers should make entering operational areas impossible.
The analysis of the case study has shown that the highest degree of the blame resides with the worker that did not follow safety protocols and decided to enter the operational area by jumping over the protective fence. The paper has shown that since companies cannot be blamed for the actions of their employees, safety engineers, and supervisors working at the factory are the ones who should also be blamed for the manslaughter. However, no degree of the blame should reside with the system designers who have equipped it with proper safety mechanisms.
ACM. “ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.” ACM, Web.
Chonko, Larry. “Ethical Theories.” DSEF, Web.
Feng, Patrick. “Rethinking Technology, Revitalizing Ethics: Overcoming Barriers to Ethical Design.” Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 6, no. 2, 2000, pp. 207-220.
Joy, Bill. “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Wired, 2000, Web.
Lin, Patrick. “Ethical Blowback from Emerging Technologies.” Journal of Military Ethics, vol. 9, no. 4, 2010, pp. 313-331.