An industrial robot crushed a worker to death at a vegetable packing plant in South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — An industrial robot grabbed and crushed a worker to death at a vegetable packaging plant in South Korea, police said today, as they investigated whether the machine was defective or improperly designed.

Police said early evidence suggests that human error was more likely to blame rather than problems with the machine itself. But the incident still triggered public concern about the safety of industrial robots and the false sense of security they may give to humans working nearby in a country that increasingly relies on such machines to automate its industries.

Police in the southern county of Goseong said the man died of head and chest injuries Tuesday evening after he was snatched and pressed against a conveyor belt by the machine’s robotic arms.

Police did not identify the man but said he was an employee of a company that installs industrial robots and was sent to the plant to examine whether the machine was working properly.

South Korea has had other accidents involving industrial robots in recent years. In March, a manufacturing robot crushed and seriously injured a worker who was examining it at an auto parts factory in Gunsan. Last year, a robot installed near a conveyor belt fatally crushed a worker at a milk factory in Pyeongtaek.

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.

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.

According to data from the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea had 1,000 industrial robots per 10,000 employees in 2021, the highest density in the world and more than three times the number in China that year. Many of South Korea’s industrial robots are used in major manufacturing plants such as electronics and auto-making.