Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

News You Might Have Missed To End Your Week

Friday, February 4th, 2022

Interesting weather today, here in the heart of the Berkshire mountains. A little rain, a little sleet, a little freezing rain, a little snow and a lot of ice. The very definition of my newly coined word, quinaryfecta (I toyed with pentafecta).

Governor Baker has asked everyone to stay off the roads, so, here I sit putting together a few stories that might have slipped under your radar.

The cost of health care continues it ever-upward trajectory

In November, the Kaiser Family Foundation published the results of its annual Employer Health Benefits Survey, and 2021 continued what appears to be an unstoppable trend.

More than 155 million Americans get their health care from Employer Sponsored Insurance (ESI). That’s 55% of the working population. There are two facts about this year’s survey I would like to highlight:

First, the annual cost of health insurance for a family is rising faster than both wages and inflation.

To their credit, employers have been absorbing most of the rise in premium costs, but this prevents them from using those funds now going to health care insurance for other worthwhile endeavors, like growing their companies, enhancing their risk management programs, or raising wages.

Second, annual premium costs in 2021 rose 4% over 2020 to a record high $22,221. That’s $1,852 per month. Workers are paying an average of 28% of the cost, or about $500 per month. But that’s before a 2021 average deductible of $1,669, which is 92% higher than ten years ago. In 2021, 85% of workers in ESI plans were subject to a deductible.

As these costs continue their stratospheric rise it’s like employers and employees are side by side trying to outswim a Navy Destroyer ―  with every stroke they fall farther behind.

Speaking of upward trends, let’s consider traffic deaths in 2021

The Department of Transportation just released a statistical projection of traffic fatalities for the first 9 months of 2021 showing an estimated 31,720 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes nationwide. This represents an increase of about 12% as compared to 28,325 fatalities that were projected in the first nine months of 2020. This is the highest percentage increase over a nine-month period since the Department began recording fatal crash data in 1975. The numbers in 2021 are 32.5% higher than they were a decade ago.

Something weird is happening on our roads. Over the last 45 years, traffic safety engineers and automakers have made remarkable progress in improving the safety of our roads and cars. But they haven’t been able to change the human element, about which we wrote a week ago.

Don’t go by raw numbers, however. The important statistic is the rate of traffic fatalities per million miles driven. From 2011 through 2019, the rate didn’t waffle much, going from 1.09 to 1.10, with a blip up to 1.17 in 2016.

All that changed in 2020, when the rate jumped to 1.35. In 2021, it inched up to 1.36 to prove 2020 wasn’t a momentary aberration.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announced the Department will dedicate significant resources to attack these daily tragedies. We will be paying close attention to this.

Another example of our fragmented health care

The Biden Administration has made it easier for people to get free at home rapid tests. Here at our home, we applied on Day One of the program, and four days later our tests arrived. And the Administration has distributed millions of tests to pharmacies and states. People can go to CVS or Walmart or any other participating entity, buy tests, and get reimbursed by their insurance company. That’s not how other countries are doing it, and they’ve been doing it longer. They’ve cut out the insurer middleman, and have just gone directly to their people with the tests. In the the UK, for example, testing has become a way of life.

The insurer reimbursement issue has become a Medicaid problem for the states. The rules of Medicaid do not allow for it, and, because each state administers the program in its own way, they’re all approaching the problem differently.

Some states have made it easier for the safety net program to reimburse pharmacies for providing the tests at no cost. Others are experiencing what CMS described in an 11 January call with the states as “operational considerations and challenges.” Here’s one such challenge: Some states require a prescription for Medicaid enrollees to get anything from a pharmacy. To deal with this, states are making what they are calling “standing orders” to allow enrollees to get free tests at pharmacies without a prescription.

Another challenge for the states: How to get tests to homebound enrollees. Some states are attacking this by setting up temporary mail order programs.

My point here is that each state has to create its own solution. That is counterproductive. All the states are facing the same COVID problems, but each is attacking those problems differently. Throughout, one thing has become clear to the various Medicaid State Directors: the more they communicate with each other, the better off they are.

It is becoming more and more evident that the absence of one cohesive system to guide everyone wastes time and money, and jeopardizes the health of Medicaid enrollees all over the nation.

Have a nice weekend.

 

Yes, Jennifer, It Really Is Human Error!

Tuesday, January 25th, 2022

Jennifer Homendy is upset.

The Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is rippin’ mad, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that human error is a significant factor in 94% of auto crashes. This is how she put it on Twitter:

 

Sorry, Ms. Homendy, but it’s more true than not. Human error always has been, is now, and will continue to be a major contributing factor to motor vehicle crashes. This is true in nearly all cases. It’s even true when a crash happens just because of lack of preventive maintenance. Think skidding into a pole on bald tires. It’s true in a two-car crash when one party does everything right and nothing wrong. Think being rear-ended at a traffic light. Somebody makes a mistake, and, regrettably, sometimes others have to pay.

There are so many ways for human beings to contribute to things going bad on the road. Take talking on a cell phone. Epidemiological research has found that cell-phone use is associated with a four-fold increase in the odds of getting into an accident. David Strayer, Ph.D., of the Applied Cognition Laboratory at the University of Utah, has studied cell-phone impact for more than five years. In one of his studies, when drivers talked on a cell phone, their reactions to imperative events (such as braking for a traffic light or a decelerating vehicle) were significantly slower than when they were not talking on the cell phone.

Ms. Homendy is right about one thing, though. Crashes are “complex.” That’s why local police, Highway Patrol officers, state troopers, etc., take in-depth training classes to learn how to investigate them. And in most cases they find human error involved. I’m speaking from experience.

In the mid-1970s, I was the Director of Safety and Health for the U. S. Army on the east coast. I was the Principal Guest Lecturer at the Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama. I knew more soldiers died in auto crashes than on the battlefield. I also knew their driver training was abysmal. Crashes happened during emergencies, but, unlike other areas of training, soldiers weren’t taught how to handle driving emergencies. Nobody was. I wanted to correct this by building Emergency Driving Centers on every Army base, and I got the Army Chief of Staff to agree to a pilot at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

To my everlasting regret, I learned that just because something is approved at the highest level does not mean it will  be funded. And that’s what happened. No funding, no Emergency Driving Centers. Not even the pilot. That was a hard lesson. But in the process auto safety became my specialty, at least back then, and I investigated a lot of horrible crashes.

The only crashes I ever saw, and the only kind of crashes ever reported through my office where human error was not a leading or important factor, were crashes attributed to severe and sudden weather events, such as black ice on a road, a quick forming and violent snowstorm, or an abrupt cloudburst downpour.

The number one contributing factor in fatal and non-fatal crashes was speed.

However, a couple of things were happening in the mid-1970s that would change the equation in a highly positive way: Automotive safety engineering and the beginnings of seat belt design and usage (something I played a role in, but that’s a story for another day). Let’s look at what’s happened since.

In 1975, there were 130,906,113 registered vehicles on U.S. roads. The population was 216 million.

In 2020, there were 275,924,442 registered vehicles on U.S. roads. The population was 333 million.

In 1975, 39,161 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. resulted in 44,525 deaths.

In 2019, 33,244 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. resulted in 36,096 deaths.

Please, think about that for a moment. Despite the U.S. population growing by 54% since 1975, the rate of crash deaths per 100,000 population is about half what it was then. This is a tremendous accomplishment, and is due primarily to safer roads, safer cars and seat belt usage (which in 1975 was woeful). What it is not due to is safer driving, but it appears Jennifer Homendy wants us to think it is.

What got her going is a 2015 NHTSA figure from a statistical summary within a Traffic Safety Facts data sheet. The sheet can be misleading, in that it says driver error is a “critical reason” for a crash in 94% of the cases. Here is how the agency defines “critical reason:”

Critical Reasons for the Critical Pre‑Crash Event
The critical reason is the immediate reason for the critical pre-crash event
and is often the last failure in the causal chain of events leading up to the
crash. Although the critical reason is an important part of the description
of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the
cause of the crash nor as the assignment of the fault to the driver, vehicle,
or environment.

The wording can certainly be improved. You have a “critical reason” for a crash, but you’re not supposed to interpret the “critical reason” as “the cause” of the crash.

This data sheet has been around for nearly seven years, and it probably would have remained in happy oblivion if not for a big and unexplained spike in fatal crashes during the first half of 2021, which NHTSA highlighted in an October 2021 News Release in which it dropped the 94% figure. The agency, under the leadership of Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, wants to marshal the forces, study this unhappy development, and do what it can to combat a phenomenon no one wants to see as becoming a trend.

Ms. Homendy, Chair of the NTSB since last August, takes issue with the News Release. I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible this paragraph may be the offending section:

“The report is sobering. It’s also a reminder of what hundreds of millions of people can do every day, right now, to combat this: Slow down, wear seat belts, drive sober, and avoid distractions behind the wheel,” said NHTSA Deputy Administrator Dr. Steven Cliff. “All of us must work together to stop aggressive, dangerous driving and help prevent fatal crashes.”

In response to Ms. Homendy’s ire, the NHTSA says it will do what it can to make its position more clear. Regardless, it is critical that we continue to engineer safer cars and roads. As history shows, we can do that, and we can do it well.

However, the way we train drivers hasn’t changed in 50 years, and it was poor then. To this day, when a driver confronts an emergency on the road it’s a totally new experience with often predictable and tragic results.

Workers Memorial Day – April 28.

Friday, April 26th, 2019

Today, just in time for Worker Memorial Day this coming Sunday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released employee injury and fatality data for 2017 contrasted with 2016. I guess you know the Great Recession is really over when worker injuries and fatalities reach pre-recession levels.

Compared with 2016, worker fatalities declined in 2017 – by 43 – from 5,190 to 5,147, a negligible and statistically insignificant difference of 0.8%.

Curiously, transportation incidents make up only 6% of non-fatal worker injuries, but 40% of fatalities. Essentially, 3% of all employment transportation incidents result in fatalities. Think about that the next time you merge into traffic on the freeway.

If you’ve ever wondered why car and truck manufacturers now devote so much effort to robotic, AI safety enhancements for their machines, you only have to look at the chart above to understand. They’re banking that taking the human out of the picture will reduce fatalities and sell more vehicles. In the end, everything reduces to economics.

Here at the Insider, we offer heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the 5,147 men and women who died on the job in 2017. May they rest in peace.

Automation Designed To Keep People Safe Can Produce The Opposite Result Through No Fault Of Its Own

Monday, September 18th, 2017

A fascinating article in today’s Daily Alert from the Harvard Business Review describes how our dependence on automation can erode cognitive ability to respond to emergencies.

In “The Tragic Crash of Flight AF447 Shows the Unlikely but Catastrophic Consequences of Automation,” authors Nick Oliver, Thomas Calvard and Kristina Potocnik, professors and researchers at the University of Edinburgh Business School, report on their analysis of the horrific crash of Air France flight 447 in 2009. Their research, recently published in Organizational Science, describes in riveting detail the series of preventable cascading events that led to the deaths of all 228 passengers and crew.

Although the crash of AF447 is a transportation tragedy, it also can serve as a stark reminder that employees who depend on technology, especially technology that controls dangerous work, say self-driving 18-wheel trucks, for example, need a lot of training to take the right steps when technology reacts to emergencies. Without that training, the authors contend, the cognitive ability to take manual control and successfully deal with the emergency is problematic at best.

The authors provide an example:

Imagine having to do some moderately complex arithmetic. Most of us could do this in our heads if we had to, but because we typically rely on technology like calculators and spreadsheets to do this, it might take us a while to call up the relevant mental processes and do it on our own. What if you were asked, without warning, to do this under stressful and time-critical conditions? The risk of error would be considerable.

This was the challenge that the crew of AF447 faced. But they also had to deal with certain “automation surprises,” such as technology behaving in ways that they did not understand or expect.

The point here is the technology offering up the “automation surprises” was doing exactly what it was programmed to do. The technology did not fail; the pilots, all three of them, failed in their response to the “surprises.”

We are now at the beginning of a monumental shift in the way work (and play) is done. The natural gravitational movement of artificial intelligence assuming more and more control in our daily lives is unstoppable. Think of how it has brought tremendous improvements in air safety. To prove that, consider this astounding statistic: In 2016 the accident rate for major jets was just one major accident for every 2.56 million flights. But this bubble of safety can breed terrible complacency. How humanity deals with and prepares for the rude “automation surprises” that will surely come along on the way to the future should be a critical component in the thinking of organizational leaders and safety professionals.

 

The Bike Helmet Battle: Some Things never Change

Monday, August 29th, 2016

It’s been ten years since the Insider wrote a word about motorcycle and bicycle helmets. Shame on us. This Post provides a ten-year update and connects helmet use to workers’ compensation.

To review the bidding:

We “tackled” motorcycle helmets after Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers (who, at the time, were reigning Super Bowl champions), had been seriously injured when, sans helmet, he drove head on into the side of a Chrysler New Yorker making a left turn in front of him in downtown Pittsburgh. Big Ben suffered serious facial and head injuries. He could easily have been killed. We ended that Post with this:

As a diehard New England Patriot fan, I really want to see Ben Roethlisberger on the field challenging my team for all he’s worth. So, I hope he makes a miraculously speedy recovery and is his old self by the start of training camp. But what would be really great, better than any football game, is if Big Ben, as soon as he’s sitting up and able to mouth coherent speech, were to make a big-time television public service announcement. A TV spot in which he would tell every kid and every football fan in America that he was wrong, that he was stupid, that he is not immortal and that he will never, ever again ride a motorcycle without wearing the best helmet made in the universe.

That didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, actually. For when media asked Mr. Super Bowl Superman if he would continue riding his bike (well, make that his new bike) and, if so, would he wear a helmet, he said “Yes” to the first and “No” to the second. It was at that moment that I knew we had lost the motorcycle helmet game in America.

With respect to bicycle helmets we reported on a New York City study (unfortunately no longer available) analyzing the 225 bicycle accident deaths that occurred over the most recent ten year period in the City. The study provided compelling evidence of life-saving properties of bicycle helmets. This from that Post:

  • Almost three-quarters of fatal crashes (74%) involved a head injury.
  • Nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet.
  • Helmet use among those bicyclists with serious injuries was low (13%), but it was even lower among bicyclists killed (3%).
  • Only one fatal crash with a motor vehicle occurred when a bicyclist was in a marked bike lane.
  • Nearly all bicyclist deaths (92%) occurred as a result of crashes with motor vehicles.
  • Large vehicles (trucks, buses) were involved in almost one-third (32%) of fatal crashes, but they make up approximately 15% of vehicles on NYC roadways.
  • Most fatal crashes (89%) occurred at or near intersections.
  • Nearly all (94%) fatalities involved human error.
  • Most bicyclists who died were males (91%), and men aged 45–54 had the highest death rate (8.1 per million) of any age group.

So, where are we now?

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet, known as universal helmet laws (Insider Note: in 2006, it was 20 states and the District of Columbia). Laws requiring only some motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 28 states. There is no motorcycle helmet use law in three states (Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire).

Regarding bicycles helmets, no state requires an adult to wear one, although 21 states and the District of Columbia require young riders to wear them.

Now, into this cranial hodgepodge of helmet laws ride researchers from the University of Arizona. Writing in the American Journal of Surgery, they report on their study, the largest ever done regarding the efficacy of bicycle helmets. This from the study’s Abstract:

Methods

We performed analysis of the 2012 NTDB abstracted information of all patients with an intracranial hemorrhage after bicycle related accidents. Regression analysis was performed.

Results

A total of 6,267 patients were included. 25.1%(n=1,573) of bicycle riders were helmeted. Overall 52.4%(n=3,284) patients had severe TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and the mortality rate was 2.8%(n=176). Helmeted bicycle riders had 51% reduced odds of severe TBI (0.49 [0.43-0.55]; p<0.001) and 44% reduced odds of mortality (0.56; 95% CI, 0.34-0.78; p=0.010). Helmet use also reduced the odds of facial fractures by 31%(0.69; 95% CI, 0.58-0.81; p<0.001).

Conclusion

Bicycle helmet use provides protection against severe TBI, reduces facial fractures, and saves lives even after sustaining an intracranial hemorrhage.

The good news from this study? In a bicycle accident you are more than 50% less likely to sustain a TBI, 44% less likely to die and 31% less likely sustain a facial fracture if you are wearing a helmet (Insider Note: Ask Ben Roethlisberger to describe the pain of a facial fracture).

The bad news? Despite the good news only 25% of bicyclists wear helmets. In ten years nothing has changed.

Does this have anything to do with workers’ compensation? According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, if you’re one of the more than 73,000 bicycle messengers and couriers in the U.S. it might. And if you’re one of the more than 12,000 that navigate streets in southern California or one of the more than 5,000 that zip through Midtown Manhattan, or one of the 1,400 dodging traffic in Chicago’s Loop it might. Because, while all states require employers to provide helmets to their bicyclist employees, and while most states require employers to provide training that includes the benefits of helmets, no state requires the bicyclist to wear them. However, both New York City and Chicago have enacted local laws requiring employers to provide working cyclists helmets meeting either A.N.S.I. or Snell standards and further require the cyclists to wear them.  Although in the case of NYC, someone might want to pass the requirement on to the messenger and courier companies, the largest of which told me wearing a helmet is “totally up to the rider’s discretion.”

For now, we’re left with a mish-mash. Things are pretty much as they were back in 2006, along with the helmetless rider’s continuing mantra: “It’s all about the freedom of personal choice.” That may be true, but society, that’s you, I and everyone else, doesn’t have a choice about sending EMT Rescue Units to the scenes of cycle accidents and caring for those who sustain serious injury or death in the “Live Free Or Die” game.

 

 

The AI Robotic Tsunami: Coming To A Workplace Near You!

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

In 2013, Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne published what became a highly read and highly cited study suggesting that machines could replace 47% of America’s jobs over the next 25 years. To say that they got the business world’s attention is a little bit like saying Ted Williams was a pretty good ballplayer.

The study, which examined more than 700 US occupations, found that jobs in transportation, logistics, and administrative and office work are at “high risk” for automation. “We identified several key bottlenecks currently preventing occupations being automated,” said Dr. Osborne when the study was released. “As big data helps to overcome these obstacles, a great number of jobs will be put at risk.”

Consider transportation. As of July 17, 2015, more than 20 Google self-driving cars have logged more than 1.9 million miles around California streets and have yet to cause an accident, although they’ve been hit 14 times by other cars, 11 of those hits being rearenders. So, how long do you think it will be before the transportation industry latches onto the self-driving phenomenon as a way to cut costs and increase productivity?

And logistics? Even now, Amazon and other retailers are flying drones around their warehouses delivering material for shipment, work that, before Dronedom, actual human beings performed, albeit more slowly and, every once in a while, with a bit of breakage.

And can we ignore IBM’s Watson, or Rethink Robotic’s Baxter (The AI parents just have to give their artificially intelligent children human names, don’t they?)?

The productivity increase is awesome, indeed. But the trade-off is a human job.

Of course, someone has to keep the drones flying. And someone has to keep Google’s cars humming along. This is a point the good Drs. Frey and Osborne did not examine deeply in their 2013 paper- that as jobs are eliminated due to automation, other jobs, more complex in most cases, will be created. This from the paper:

Our findings imply that as technology races ahead, low-skilled workers will move to tasks that are not susceptible to computerization – i.e., tasks that require creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.

But, hang on a minute. Just when we begin to think that Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is a’comin round the corner like an out-of-control, self-driving 18-wheeler, Forrester Research released yesterday The Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side-By-Side With Robots (the study may be purchased from Forrester for $499.00). Authored by Forrester analyst J. P. Gownder, the paper only looks out ten years, compared to Frey and Osborne’s 25. Even so, Gownder’s prognosis is nowhere as bleak as the Oxfordians’. They postulate a total job loss of 71 million. Gownder, using government data and many interviews with business execs, academics and pundits, suggests a net job loss of 9.1 million, or 7% of the workforce.  Where I come from, J. P., that’s a lot of jobs, but I take your point.

Notwithstanding the competing research, what we can say is that big change is not coming; it’s already here. This is an industrial era evolution. There have been many before. Remember that before the automobile, there was a thriving market for buggy whips.

This is one of the topics I’ll be covering on Thursday, October 29, in my Keynote Address to the Idaho Industrial Commission’s 2015 Annual Seminar on Workers’ Compensation. I’ll be discussing how artificial intelligence, along with two other emerging employment issues, is impacting workers’ compensation and how smart employers can deal with it successfully.

Meanwhile, here’s a little something for workers who awaken one day to find their newest work partner is no longer Homo Sapiens, but rather Ratus Robotus.

Workers who adjust survive.
Many of them even thrive.

Allstate – How Could You? Worcester?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

A stake through the heart.
That’s what it felt like yesterday when Allstate published its 10th annual America’s Best Drivers Report and awarded Worcester and Boston, two Massachusetts cities 38 miles apart, with the gold and silver medals, respectively, for most car crashes per capita in the nation.
Upon learning of this dubious distinction, local television stations instantly knew that such a story cried out for “man in the street interviews,” and we got plenty of those. Maybe there were people interviewed who were horrified, but most interviewees who made the cut for broadcast seemed to treat it as if it were a badge of honor.
Frankly, I felt a bit like Claude Rains in the film Casablanca who, just prior to collecting his winnings, exclaimed “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”
Boston drivers are legendary in their demolition derby attitudes. The driving Zeitgeist has forever treated traffic rules as purely advisory. A green light means “go,” and a yellow light means “go like hell.” Pedestrian crosswalks might as well not be there. If you’re riding a bike, you’d better have good radar. So, one learns early on that driving in Boston is not for the faint of heart.
And right now it’s at its worst as 152,000 college students return to 35 colleges for the next school year. Thirty-seven thousand live on campus in the heart of the city. Another 50,000 live in apartments around the city. The rest are commuters. The majority of the commuters ride the oldest-in-the-nation transit system. Boston University, alone, has more than 31,000 students.
So, I can absolutely understand Boston, a city I love, winning the trophy for 2nd place. But, geez, Worcester? Really? The most dangerous city in the America for car crashes? Worcester’s like a home town to me (so is Boston, by the way, so I’m doubly hurt).
Worcester has 181,000 people spread out over about 38 square miles. There are ten colleges in the city, not 35. Students total less than 35,000. Worcester never seems to have the driving hyperactivity one finds in Boston. Although the two cities are connected by the Massachusetts Turnpike umbilical cord, they are like yin and yang. They don’t even have the same water supply. It’s true that Worcester has a lot of traffic lights, so the yellow light “go like hell” possibility exists, but the traffic density is so much less than Boston’s that one rarely sees the Boston mania. Friends from Boston visit Worcester and think they’ve gone to the land of Zen.
Right now, you may be asking, “So, where’s the safest place to drive in America?” That, according to the driving gods at Allstate, would be Fort Collins, Colorado, a city of more than 56 square miles with a population nearly 30,000 less than Worcester’s. A city of two, count ’em, two colleges, one a community college, the other Colorado State University. A city with 30,000 college students, and I’m assuming that most of them always wear a smile and speak kindly of everyone.
Actually, Fort Collins looks like a beautiful place where everyone rides bikes without a worry and where the average blood pressure is so low that nobody has to worry about getting life insurance. Congratulations, Fort Collins.
The question I’m left with is this: How did Worcester, the city of the seven hills, home to the Hanover Insurance Group (and everyone knows that insurance employees are good drivers) earn Allstate’s first place, bottom of the bird cage award? Beats me. I’m stumped and, yes, shocked. My Great Mandala has been poleaxed.
I’m going out for a drive.

Do you have a 90-second plan for your organization?

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

On July 6, Samsung Executive and Asiana Airlines passenger David Eun posted a photo via Twitter, saying “I just crash landed at SFO. Most everyone seems fine. I’m OK. Surreal…”
Within seconds, horrified witness reports were being posted and shared on Twitter and other social media, reporters online kicked into gear finding out info about the airline and the flight. About 20-30 minutes later, TV began reporting on the event, cautiously taking much of their information from the social media reports. This event, like many other recent events, demonstrates how breaking news now occurs in the age of ubiquitous camera phones and social media.
Kudos to an industry that until this past weekend had logged only one commercial fatality since 2001. Sadly, two young Chinese students perished in this crash and dozens of other passengers sustained injuries, some quite serious and potentially life-changing. Nevertheless, it was remarkable that so many people survived this crash. Among other observations, one theme on social media was “hug an engineer today” in appreciation for their contributions to improving air travel safety.
Safety Officer first and foremost
One of the noteworthy stories that emerged was that of Lee Yoon-hye, the flight attendant who was last off the plane. You can read a story of her initial reports of the evacuation. Despite the ordeal, she was so composed that reporters did not realize she had been on the plane, they thought she was stationed as airport staff. She proceeded to do a press conference (in Korean, but just click to marvel at her composure) and only later at the hospital did she realize she had broken her tailbone. (See also: Harrowing tales of rescue after crash of Asiana Flight 214.)
In pop culture over the years, the job of the flight attendant has often been portrayed as a glorified cocktail server — and because flights are generally so safe, it’s easy to forget what the main responsibilities of the flight attendant are: first and foremost, safety, and when required, emergency response. Attendants undergo rigorous safety training which includes emergency passenger evacuation management, use of evacuation slides/life rafts, in-flight firefighting, survival in the jungle, sea, desert, ice, first aid, CPR, defibrillation, ditching/emergency landing procedures, decompression emergencies, Crew Resource Management and security. They are also often required to speak several languages because they have to communicate with international travelers.
Lessons to be learned
The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene very quickly, beginning a thorough investigation and analysis of exactly what happened and why. This is expected to take some time, although happily enough, NTSB has an advantage in the number of on-the-scene witnesses and staff. All too often they are piecing fragments together and the staff reports are from a recovered black box. You can watch the NTSB’s most recent public report from Wednesday.
The evacuation standard for getting off a plane in an emergency is within 90 seconds – something that seems incredible if you stop and think how long it can take to deplane under normal circumstances, never mind in the midst of chaos and turmoil in a crash scene and fire. The recent NTSB reports are now saying that the orders to evacuate didn’t come until 90 seconds after landing – the pilots originally told passengers to stay in their seats. Perhaps pilots may have been waiting for rescue vehicles to get to the plane, it’s unclear. But when fire was spotted 90 seconds in, evacuation ensued. It’s easy to second guess decisions but it is up to the NTSB to gather more facts and determine what happened.
Lee’s exceptional safety training kicked in to gear on that Saturday crash and she saved lives. Think of her next time you shrug off the safety drill at the start of your next flight. More importantly, think of your organization’s emergency response plan. How ready would your organization be should an unexpected event occur. Could you evacuate the premises in 90 seconds or less? Do you have an assigned emergency response team or assigned safety staff? Fred Hosier offers 7 safety lessons any workers can take from SF plane crash at Safety News Alert – a excellent rundown of take-aways for any employer in any industry. As the NTSB report progresses, there will no doubt be other lessons in safety, planning, and emergency response – lessons for both for the airline industry and other businesses a well.
See also: Emergency Response Plans & Resources for Businesses
Related reading

Mental Illness in the Cockpit

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Clayton Osbon, 49, served as a pilot for Jet Blue Airlines for 12 years. On March 27 during Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas, he suddenly began raving about terrorists and started pushing buttons and flipping switches in the cockpit, all the while telling air traffic controllers to shut up. His co-pilot had the presence of mind to suggest Osbon, the flight captain, go to the bathroom. When Osbon did, the co-pilot and another JetBlue pilot on board locked him out of the cockpit. Osbon started banging on the door and had to be subdued by passengers on the flight.
Osbon is now charged with interfering with a flight crew – an intriguing conundrum, as he was head of the flight crew with which he interfered. Osbon had passed a physical a few months prior to the incident, although it is unlikely that a detailed mental health evaluation was part of that physical.
Osbon’s friends have stated that he has no history of mental illness and had exhibited no symptoms that would have foretold the bizarre behavior on flight 191. It appears that with no warning signs, Osbon simply snapped, putting the passengers and crew at immediate risk.
(Mental) Fitness for Duty
This incident raises important issues about mental health and fitness for duty, especially in jobs which involve not just the well-being of a single worker, but the general public as well. A couple of years ago we blogged the saga of Bryan Griffin, a pilot for Quantas Airlines who had “uncontrollable urges” to crash airplanes. While he never actually followed through on his death wish, he continued to fly for about three years, while suffering from this obvious mental health problem. Quantas chose to risk disaster rather than remove Griffin from his pilot duties. Ironically, thirty years later he was awarded over $200K in disability pay for the stress of flying while he was mentally vulnerable, a ruling which left Quantas – and the rest of us – shaking our heads in disbelief.
In the months ahead we will learn more about Osbon’s sudden breakdown, including whether there were subtle indications that something was wrong. But at the heart of this story is the mystery of mental illness itself. While significant advances have been made in both the diagnosis and treatment of mental disabilities, much remains unknown. The Federal Aviation Authority has issued guidance on the use of anti-depressants for pilots, even while admitting that the science is tentative and subject to change. Pilots who are placed on anti-depressants are not allowed to fly for one year; it is reasonable to assume that Osbon will not return to the cockpit for at least a year, perhaps more.
The Paradox of Mental Illness
Even as unprecedented advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness, pervasive prejudice still remains. Individuals seeking care are often stigmatized; there is considerable public pressure for individuals to suppress symptoms and avoid treatment. Insurance coverage for treatment may be spotty, and for those without insurance, the emergency room is usually the only treatment option. In the above referenced guidance, the FAA estimates that about ten percent of the population suffers from depression, with the majority of these people working, raising families, driving motor vehicles and even flying airplanes.
Osbon’s case illustrates the difficulty in trying to establish viable policies on mental fitness for duty. As my southern friends would say, it’s like trying to nail Jello to a tree. We are reminded that just getting out of bed and heading off to work – let alone boarding an airplane – is an act of faith. We trust other drivers on the road to stay in their lanes, just as we assume that the pilot of our aircraft is rational, detail-oriented and totally focused on the job at hand. We as individuals may be a bit distracted, but everyone else is locked into what they are supposed to be doing. That’s not just a leap of faith, that’s an Evel Knievel rocket across the Snake River Canyon.

Low clearance: truckers, this one is for you

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011


A website called 11foot8 videos chronicles “the good, the bad and the ugly” of low clearance truck accidents at a single Durham NC trestle bridge. While one might think this is the purview of inexperienced drivers and rental trucks, the videos don’t lie: professionals have had their share of accidents, too.
When professionals make a mistake, the results can turn deadly. In September, four people were killed when a bus crashed into a railroad bridge in Syracuse after deviating from the normal route. And even non-fatal incidents wreak havoc in terms of injuries, property losses, hazards to pedestrians and other drivers, and costly traffic tie ups. Here are photos of four serious nonfatal truck and bridge collisions
Prevention tips
Prevention might seem obvious to some, but approximately 5,000 bridge-truck collisions per year say otherwise. Here are some pointers we gleaned from the pros:

  • Plan route in advance and stay on route
  • Check atlas and or gps systems in advance
  • Keep atlases and gps systems up to date
  • Check with any state or major city DOTs (examples: NYC; TX); they often provide good information about the local area
  • Be religious about watching for and heeding signage
  • If on an unfamiliar route, check with other drivers about hazards
  • Talk to shippers and receivers on your route about nearby low clearance
  • When in doubt, don’t risk it

Additional Resources
America’s Independent Truckers Association (AITA) offers an online database of low clearance bridges with heights broken down by state.
For situations that might require escorts, AITA maintains a truck escort referral listing
This trucker forum discusses low clearance solutions.