Fit for Work: A simple test to spot fit fliers

 - May 30, 2011, 6:20 AM

Aviation is extraordinarily dependent on the performance of people who fly and maintain aircraft. But figuring out whether they are in the right frame of mind to perform safely is extremely difficult. For example, if a pilot complied with the regulations and stopped drinking alcohol before the mandatory time cutoff and has a blood alcohol level below regulatory limits, is that pilot safe to fly? What if that pilot also missed a few hours of sleep because of the partying? Add a stressful home or work situation to the mix, and the risk of that pilot not being as safe as possible quickly climbs.

There is a way to assess people’s alertness and it doesn’t involve drug or alcohol testing. The solution is the Fit For Work Indicator, which uses a simple computer-based assessment system to determine whether a person might not be in the right condition to work in safety-sensitive jobs.

The indicator was developed by Australian company Ospat, a division of Romtech, in response to legislation enacted in Queensland, Australia. The rules required mine workers “to work at the coal mine only if the worker or person is in a fit condition to carry out the work without affecting the safety and health of others.” According to Gordon Dupont, CEO of System Safety Services, Richmond, British Columbia, which helps companies set up Fit For Work Indicator systems, the mines thus became responsible for ensuring that their workers were safe to work.

It is difficult to identify why a worker might not be in condition to work, according to Dupont, because the problem could be one or more impediments. These include illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue and nutrition problems such as dehydration.

“Can they still do their job safely? That’s the key,” Dupont said. “Many factors impair a person’s ability to work safely. We’ve got try to recognize that impairment before there’s a risk to themselves and a risk to other people. And that’s what the Fit For Work Indicator can do. It helps you recognize when an employee might not be [capable] of peak performance in the workplace, whether CEO or janitor.”

What is interesting about the indicator is that figuring out why someone is impaired is not important. “Trying to identify the cause is way more difficult than [deducing] that they are impaired,” he said. “Because this will not tell you, is this person actually impaired? All it says is that he is not behaving the way he normally does.”

Employee Assessment

The Fit For Work tester consists of a trackball that the employee uses to manipulate a “jitter cursor” that must be kept in the center of a target on a screen. The cursor moves around and the employee must move it to the center. There are three result levels: 40 to 80, pass, proceed to work; 30 to 40, caution, you’re fit but not your normal self; and 20 to 30, alert, report to your supervisor. It takes about 20 days of consistent use of the tool to establish each person’s baseline personal assessment level.

It is important to understand that the tool itself doesn’t make the decision about whether the employee can go to work after testing, Dupont said. That decision is up to the supervisor, and a company that uses the Fit For Work system must create formal policies for how to deal with caution and alert test results.

At companies that use the tool, the Fit For Work assessment takes place in private kiosks that are similar to voting booths, with identification keys or fingerprint checkers to ensure that the employee is indeed the person taking the test.

Currently, there is just one aviation company using the Fit for Work assessment, charter operator Aero Jet Services based in Scottsdale, Ariz. Aero Jet spent about two years testing the system and experimenting with protocols for how to deal with the test results, according to director of operations Lonnie Roberts. “In aviation there are unique scenarios you run into,” he said. “We had to figure out how to handle them.”

Aero Jet operates a Challenger 601, Hawker 700, Citation Excel and Learjets. One of the Learjets is equipped for air ambulance flights and is used for frequent middle-of-the-night organ transplant trips. The challenge for a charter company using Fit For Work assessments is that there isn’t always a supervisor on hand to evaluate the results. Flights often depart after normal working hours, and pilots are often away from the Scottsdale base for days during extended trips.

Working with Dupont, Aero Jet devised a two-page questionnaire. The first page asks about time since the last meal, number of time zones passed during the most recent 24-hour period, medications taken, adequate sleep, alcohol consumed, health issues, even how long it has been since the last drink of water. “It gets pilots thinking, ‘Those things affect what I’m doing,’” said Roberts.

The second page is for the supervisor to fill out. This page addresses indicators that the supervisor needs to consider, such as the employee’s attitude, behavior, appearance (fixed staring, rolling eyes, sweating, surly, dreamy, antagonistic and so on), whether the employee is moving slowly, restless, unusually quiet, yawning excessively, microsleeping and so on. If the employee doesn’t generate a caution or alert from the Fit For Work indicator, then there is no need for the supervisor to make the evaluation.

If two pilots are on a long trip, they don’t have access to the indicator, but each one fills out the first page of the questionnaire, then the other pilot fills out the supervisor’s portion on the second page, effectively checking each other. More important, this process increases the awareness among pilots of how lack of sleep, stress and the other factors can affect their performance. The pilots have to submit the questionnaire with their load manifest before each departure.

Dispatchers need to be trained to develop backup plans when scheduling pilots for trips where it might be hard to find another pilot away from home base or in the middle of the night.

As of early May, Aero Jet had been using the new protocols for about two months, Roberts said, and no pilots or mechanics had been asked not to work. Some employees generated alerts, but after evaluation they were allowed to work.

‘A Self-Awareness Tool’

Overall, Roberts is happy with the Fit For Work Indicator system. “I’m a pilot; I know how these things work. A guy can be legal and have legal rest and really not be rested or have other issues.” Before adopting Fit For Work, Roberts wondered how to ascertain if a pilot is mentally OK to fly, even if all the legal boxes are ticked. “Is his head in the game? It’s been a burning question to me for years. I was reading an article about this Fit For Work tool, and it seems to be exactly what I’m talking about.”

Roberts warned that just using the Fit For Work tool doesn’t automatically add safety. Evaluation of the test results is where the safety benefit is realized. Roberts compares the use of Fit For Work with flight risk-assessment tools. If a pilot gets a caution on the Fit For Work test, he should wonder why the score wasn’t higher. “It changes their attitude,” he explained. “It’s a self-awareness tool. You can fill out a flight risk assessment and do Fit For Work, but if you’re not trained [in how to use it], it doesn’t do any good. I’m really pleased with it and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to put the effort in. Is it a cure-all? Just because you pass, does it mean you’re fit? No. It’s just an indicator.”

There is another benefit, too, Roberts said. “It gives me as the director of operations more peace of mind that we’re doing everything we can. If we had an accident and could show [that we use Fit For Work], it could help us in a lawsuit. If the allegation was that the pilots were unfit, this is ammunition that we could use in court, that we did everything we possibly can.”

Fit For Work does work, according to Dupont. In one Australian coal mine, average number of days off due to injury was 33 per year, and that number dropped to three to five after the mines implemented Fit For Work. One gold mine’s lost time due to injuries dropped to three days from 14 in 10 months and another to two from 22. Other benefits include quality-of-life improvements and higher productivity, as a result of employees making changes to their behavior in response to the testing.

“It’s simple,” Dupont concluded, “and takes less than a minute a day to do. It’s non-intrusive and based on each person’s own personal performance history. You’re not competing with anybody else. It can help the company detect and assist an employee with problems before the problem gets out of hand. It will assist you in analyzing that all-important question: can they do their job safely? That’s the key.”