Since the 1960s, the use of robotics in manufacturing has only grown — especially as new and increasingly cheap technologies continue to be introduced. Some 59% of manufacturers have already adopted robotics in their processes. These machines run the gamut from heavyweight welding arms to collaborative robots (also known as cobots) that work side-by-side with their human counterparts. The automation boom will transform job responsibilities for many union members, which may affect the health care benefits they need.
Physical Health Effects of Automation
Among other things, the use of robotics in manufacturing has the potential to improve members' health and safety. Robots can take on heavy lifting, awkward motions and repetitive tasks that strain the body and cause conditions like musculoskeletal disorders.
But that doesn't mean robots eliminate the risk of injury. Aside from unforeseeable accidents, robotic technology itself can actually pose a threat to workers if configured or used inappropriately. It's vital that union leaders collaborate with employers to properly train members to use robotic technology and verify that the machines are safe.
The union should also treat the introduction of new technology as an opportunity to confirm that its health plan offerings provide sufficiently robust coverage for on-the-job injuries. By working with employers to provide a benefits package that makes routine care accessible and affordable, you encourage your members to get treatment before an ailment or mental health concern develops into a more costly problem.
Mental Health Concerns in a Robotics Age
Though some manufacturing jobs will endure and new ones in different fields will continue to be introduced, the fact remains that the use of robotics in manufacturing has lead to an overall decline in manufacturing jobs. According to a 2015 study, of job losses in manufacturing from 2000 to 2010, roughly 87% were due to automation. And data from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that between 1990 and 2007, the addition of each industrial robot eliminated 6.2 jobs within popular areas for commuting.
Even if they don't know the exact numbers, witnessing this shift can put a significant mental strain on members, who might fear that their job will be next. Remind members of the benefits of seeking out preventive health: As automation risk increases, so too does spending on health care for physical ailments brought on by mental stress. Along with productivity loss and an increase in physical ailments, a 10% increase in automation risk could raise the cost of care related to mental distress from $7 million to $47 million.
Besides offering coverage for necessary mental health care — and encouraging, rather than stigmatizing, members to take advantage of it — unions should connect members with training that can help them develop the skills they would need to move into a position related to robotics, such as programmer or maintenance manager. The union should maintain open lines of communication among members, the union and employers to address concerns and ensure that the use of robotic technology is safe and in the best interest of members. Taking practical steps to help retain members' jobs will help reduce stress and its associated mental and physical health costs.
The integration of robotics and manufacturing shows no signs of slowing down. As a union, proactively consider how those changes — or the threat of them — will affect members, and be prepared to meet those challenges so your members can remain healthy, productive and safe.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.