Follow up: Haste and Waste in Airport Security

March 11th, 2005 by

Yesterday’s blog on the extraordinarily high injury rates for airport baggage screeners came at an interesting time for me. I had just spent 7 hours waiting for a plane in the Philadelphia airport, for a 40 minute flight to Harrisburg that could have been (and next time will be) driven in two hours. The rule of travel these days seems to be “hurry up and wait.” For baggage screeners, it is “hurry up and get hurt.”
The massive hiring of 45,000 security people in the Transportation Security Administration is a classic case study in “not-exactly the best” management practices. Indeed, LynchRyan cautions employers that the “good times” of expansion come with a very high risk for injuries and losses, simply due to the fact that you have to hire so many strangers. Safe hiring, under the best of circumstances, is a huge management challenge. When you combine a new occupation with difficult working conditions and ambiguous job descriptions, you have a recipe for serious trouble.
Here are just a few of the mishandled items (no pun intended) in the ramp up of airport baggage screeners:
First, set yourself unrealistic deadlines for getting up and running. This results in a mad scramble to find live bodies. When you hire 45,000 people in a short period of time, you are going to make a lot of mistakes.
Then, develop your job description as you go. In this case, it turns out that the job involves a lot more heavy lifting than originally contemplated. On a busy shift, baggage screeners might lift a bag every 7 seconds, with bags routinely weighing over 50 pounds. Handlers usually have no way of knowing how much a bag weighs, so they are often injured by misjudging the weight. The original hiring did not look for exceptional physical fitness — and if it had, qualified candidates might have been hard to come by.
Next, set up a production system where the ergonomic stresses are maximized. In this case, there is a lot of awkward lifting from conveyer belt (low to the ground) to X-ray machine (waist high), then back to conveyer belt. Again, the under-estimated weight of the luggage became a big factor in subsequent injuries.
After that, when you have a rash of injuries, wait for OSHA to come in and tell you what you are doing wrong. Under no circumstances should you listen carefully to employee concerns and address them in a timely manner.
Finally, add in ferocious time pressures: the baggage must get on the planes, so create a frantic pace for the work, thereby maximizing the opportunity for injury. If safety stops in the x-ray machines slow you down, simply by-pass them, even if doing so creates additional hazards for workers.
A Better Way
A massive undertaking of this nature has unavoidable risks. But if the goal is to ensure the security of the traveling public, we might begin by trying to keep our new employees safe and secure! Even under the most trying conditions, there are “best practice” steps that prudent managers can take to mitigate the risk of injury to workers.
First, study your lines of production: in this case, anticipate the flow of baggage throughout the system. Minimize the ergonomic strains. Either align conveyer belts with X-ray machines, or provide mechanical lifts. Sure this costs money, but in the two years between 2002 and 2004 taxpayers have already spent $67 million on lost work days and medical bills for injured workers; a comparable investment in good ergonomics would pay for itself!
Be clear about the essential job functions. If constant heavy lifting is in fact an essential part of the job, make sure applicants understand this. Perform pre-employment physicals to ensure that they can handle these challenges.
Make sure every worker receives the requisite training. Many airports are so short-staffed, they cannot release employees for training. That is a poor excuse and an invitation to disaster. Indeed, if a baggage screener skips the training, how effective a screener will he or she be?
When your employees identify serious concerns, take immediate steps to address them. In this case, it’s clear that the unknown weight of bags moving through the system poses a constant hazard. Every bag is weighed a check in. Why not label them at that time with color-coded tags to alert handlers?
I doubt that anyone really believes that baggage screening is inherently more dangerous than mining or construction. But the data is proving just that. Haste indeed makes waste, in this instance, the waste of disabling injuries for hundreds of workers who thought they were just beginning their new careers in federal service.