Fatigue detection system can preempt human error

 - June 30, 2009, 10:07 AM

As business aviation has matured, the lessons learned from accidents and incidents have led to significant improvements in design, technology, materials and maintenance–all of which have made business jets one of the safest forms of transportation.

Unfortunately, the near elimination of those elements as contrib- utors has served to magnify the role of human error in accidents. While there are regulations that deal with drug, alcohol, health and rest issues, there has not been a “go/no go” tool to give immediate feedback on a crewmember’s fitness for duty. As Gordon Dupont, CEO of Richmond, B.C.-based System Safety Services, has discovered, finding a solution and having it accepted by the industry are two different issues.

Dupont learned about a device being used in Australia’s coal mines that dramatically reduces time lost to injuries. Perth, Australia-based Ospat (Occupational Safety Performance Assessment Technology) developed a device called the “fit-for-work (FFW) indicator” in response to new legislation that dictated mine workers are obliged to work at the coal mine only if they are in a fit condition to carry out the work without endangering the safety and health of others.

“It was that legislation that gave the mining companies the duty of care to ensure that their employees were indeed fit to work safely,” Dupont told AIN. “Random drug and alcohol testing seemed like the answer, but it did little to reduce the number of accidents [and] injuries. Another problem was the reluctance of the union to accept the invasive drug testing as a condition of employment.”

Dupont said mine management found the FFW provided a noninvasive means to reduce the incident and injury rate significantly.

Dupont explained that the device uses a neurobehavioral performance measurement based on hand-eye coordination to alert supervisors to possible impairment. The simple noninvasive test requires subjects to maintain a computer-generated moving “plus” symbol in the middle of a circle for a specified period of time while the system analyzes their performance. The computer measures the subject’s reactions and then compares the results against the individual’s own performance history.

The moving symbol, or jitter, randomly moves in any direction. The participant then tries to bring it back to the center with a track ball, much like a computer game. The test begins at an easy pace and does not record for the first few seconds to allow the person to prepare. It then gets progressively more challenging until the person has difficulty keeping up. If the person is slow to react, it stays at a less difficult stage.

The FFW performance assessment takes less than a minute of the participant’s time, and the results are based on what is called the individual’s personal assessment level (PAL)–a series of tests or practice runs made by the individual. This profile is given a value of 50 (that subject’s mean average score) and while the 50 will never change, the mean average score will gradually change over time as the person becomes better with practice or worse with age. Each individual is thus tested against himself and no one else.

In 2003 Dupont went to Perth to meet Roly Brazier, Ospat’s president, and spent two weeks training on the system. “I returned home convinced the FFW is exactly what we need in aviation and launched a campaign to get operators to use the system,” Dupont said.

He was surprised to discover resistance to the idea. “There was a sort of invasion issue I hadn’t anticipated that had to do with taking a test every day. A few companies have shown an interest but the idea has been slow to catch on,” Dupont said. “It’s been on the back burner, with our time being more focused on giving our training programs and helping flight departments implement safety management systems [SMS], but we still think the FFW is a perfect fit for an SMS and we continue to bring it to trade shows.”

Dupont said the Colgan Air Q400 fatal accident near Buffalo-Niagara International Airport in February has sparked renewed interest in the subject of fatigue, which in turn might ignite demand for the FFW system.

“It’s only been [over] the past 10 years or so that the industry has given serious attention to the issue of fatigue. Now it’s becoming a huge issue and it appears that the FAA may be interested in the FFW as part of a safety management system. Usually Transport Canada follows the FAA’s lead. Perhaps the industry will finally recognize the key role it can play in human factors-related accidents,” Dupont said.