An automated factory operation
A new Penn study demonstrates how, over the last 40 years, high-tech factory automation has enhanced business operations at the same time it has generated widespread “deaths of despair” and other health problems in communities with ousted human workers.

Ever since the 1980s, when robot technology reached levels of sophistication enabling U.S. factories to eliminate ever-larger numbers of human workers, there has been speculation about the broader potential health impact of this trend. Now, a new University of Pennsylvania study co-led by LDI Senior Fellow Atheendar Venkataramani, MD, PhD, is among the first to demonstrate a causal association between the widespread robotization of industry and worker “deaths of despair.”

In much the same way that studies have long analyzed how industrial robots decrease costs and boost profits for business, this emerging new field of study is analyzing the non-obvious degree to which those same changes negatively impact the health and wellbeing of the displaced humans as well as their communities.

Death by Robots

The study —  “Death by Robots? Automation and Working-Age Mortality in the United States” — found that steadily increasing factory automation from 1993 to 2007 led to “substantive increases in all-cause mortality for both men and women aged 45–54.” This included increases in drug overdose deaths, suicide, homicide, and cardiovascular mortality. The findings were published in the February 2022 edition of the journal Demography. Venkataramani of Penn, Rourke O’Brien, PhD, of Yale University, and Elizabeth Bair, MS, of Penn, are co-leading the research.

Atheendar Venkataramani
Atheendar Venkataramani, MD, PhD, LDI Senior Fellow and Penn Medicine researcher.

Venkataramani is an LDI Senior Fellow, an Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, and is the Director of the Opportunity for Health Lab. This new study follows his 2019 study of the patterns of excess deaths after the closure of automotive plants in 29 counties from 1999 to 2016. That earlier study found that the erosion of economic opportunity following those closings led to substantially higher rates of drug overdose mortalities among non-Hispanic white males 18 to 65 years of age. Findings showed these excess “deaths of despair” were a major factor in the various regions’ opioid overdose epidemic.

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

U.S. Life Expectancy

The timeline of factory automation’s rapidly accelerating pace starting in the 1980s interestingly coincides with the sudden stagnation and an ongoing decline in U.S. life expectancy for the first time in modern history. 

A 2017 National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine consensus report on this troubling phenomenon noted that along with the job losses, plant closings and foreign trade disruption, broader forces “such as technological advances” may also be at work.

In its own look at this field in the same period, a World Bank Development Report  touted the long-recognized financial benefits of automation for industry, but warned that “perhaps the biggest risk from this technological change, however, is that of widening income inequality. Although technologies are becoming widespread, the economic payoffs are not.”

The World Bank said that large-scale automation of the kind now occurring “can also accelerate job destruction.” It pointed to robotization that is rapidly spreading beyond heavy factory operations to other areas of commerce including “automation of logistics and processing, digitization (data entry, publishing/printing), and self-service (document creation and management versus clerical support, or retail self-checkout).”

Material Pathways

Venkataramani’s 2022 research team noted the lost jobs were most often those of less educated workers. They point to the subsequent “material pathways” through which the negative effects of robot displacements manifest for ousted workers. This includes loss of employment, wages, and access to health care, along with the reduction of a region’s future economic opportunities, and the continual elevated mental stress inherent in all those situations.

The study data indicates each additional robot added per 1,000 factory workers resulted in eight additional deaths per 100,000 males aged 45 to 54, and four additional deaths per 100,000 females in that same age group. 

The findings also estimate that an overall increase of 12% in drug overdose mortality occurred among all working-age adults in the 1993-2007 period of the study. At the same time, researchers found that “the generosity of state safety net programs — Medicaid and unemployment insurance — mitigated the effect of automation on mortality among middle-aged males, specifically deaths due to suicide and drug overdose.”

State Policies

They also found that state labor market policies could moderate the effect of automation on middle-aged male mortality. One finding was that the states experiencing the highest levels of drug overdose mortality and suicides had either union-weakening “right-to-work” laws or lower minium wage rates.

Another recent study predicts the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to further exacerbate this robots-and-population health issue by driving more large employers to automate production in order to protect themselves against human workforce disruptions during future epidemics and pandemics.

“Taken together,” Venkataramani and his co-authors wrote, “these findings demonstrate the central importance of public policies in moderating the effects of deindustrialization on deaths of despair.” 


Hoag Levins

Editor, Digital Publications

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