Industrial robots and population health: a deadly mix

Ever since the 1980s, when robotic technology reached levels of sophistication allowing American factories to eliminate ever-increasing numbers of human workers, speculation has been raised about the potential broader health impact of this trend. Now, a new study from Penn co-led by LDI Principal Investigator Atheendar Venkataramani is among the first to demonstrate a causal association between widespread robotization in industry and workers’ “deaths of despair.”

In the same way that studies have long analyzed how industrial robots reduce costs and increase corporate profits, this emerging new field of study analyzes the unobvious degree to which these same changes negatively impact health and well-being. -being displaced humans. as well as their communities.

The study “Death by robots? Automation and Working-Age Mortality in the United States,” found that the steady increase in factory automation from 1993 to 2007 resulted in “substantial increases in all-cause mortality in men and women aged 45 at 54 years old. This included increases in drug overdose deaths, suicides, homicides and cardiovascular mortality. The results were published in the February 2022 edition of the journal Demography. Penn’s Venkataramani, Yale University’s Rourke O’Brien, and Penn’s Elizabeth Bair co-lead the research.

Venkataramani is a senior researcher at the ILD, assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine, and director of the Opportunity for Health Lab. This new study follows its 2019 study of excess death patterns after auto plant closures in 29 counties from 1999 to 2016. This earlier study found that the erosion of economic opportunity as a result of these closures resulted in significantly higher overdose death rates in non-Hispanic white men aged 18-65. The results showed that these excessive “deaths of despair” were a major factor in the epidemic of opioid overdose in the different regions.

The new study analyzes the similar effects of the erosion of regional economic opportunities created when robots take over productive factories, driving out their human workers. Over the past 20 years, as many as 750,000 jobs have been eliminated by robots, according to the latest estimates.

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Mavis R. Bernier