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Robots are driving their US co-workers to substance abuse, a Pitt study found

  • Technology & Science
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

A University of Pittsburgh study suggests that while Americans who work alongside industrial robots are less likely to be injured on the job, they are more likely to suffer from adverse mental health effects — and even more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. The same patterns did not hold true in Germany, however.

These findings were published in Labour Economics by Pitt economist Osea Giuntella along with a team that included Rania Gihleb, an assistant professor in the Department of Economics, and Tianyi Wang (A&S ’20G), who is in a post-doctoral program after earning his PhD at Pitt.

“There is a wide interest in understanding the labor market effects of robots and how robots affect the employment and wages of workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector. However, we still know very little about the effects on physical and mental health,” said Giuntella, an expert in labor economics and economic demography and an assistant professor in the in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Using data from the OSHA Data Initiative, the team found injuries were reduced by 1.2 cases per 100 workers when a regional labor market experienced an increase in robot exposure. Meanwhile, areas with more people working alongside robots had a significant increase in drug or alcohol related deaths — 37.8 cases per 100,000 people — as well as a slight increase in mental health issues and suicide rates.

“On one hand, robots could take on some of the most strenuous, physically intensive and risky tasks reducing [human] workers’ risk,” Giuntella said. “On the other hand, the competition with robots may increase the pressure on workers who may lose their jobs or be forced to retrain.”

[Read more: Robots might be bad for men, but give women more bargaining power.]

With the help of Luca Stella from Freie Universität Berlin, the team also investigated whether these trends were unique to the U.S. According to their analysis, German workers saw a 5% decrease in injuries but no significant mental health changes when exposed to robotics.

“Robot exposure did not cause disruptive job losses in Germany; Germany has a much higher employment protection legislation,” Gihleb said. “In contexts where workers were less protected, competition with robots was associated with a rise in mental health problems.”

Giuntella has studied the effects of robotics on the workforce before. A 2021 study published in focused on the effects of robotics on economic stature, marital status and marital fertility of men.

“There has been an intense debate on the effects of robotics and automation on labor market outcomes, but we still know little about how these structural economic changes are reshaping key life-course choices,” said Giuntella.

The team wrote that future studies should examine interactions between humans and robots at the firm or occupation level to further disentangle the complex relationship between automation and well-being.

— Nick France