The consequences when things go wrong in safety-critical roles can be horrific, as tragedies such as the Glasgow bin lorry disaster of 2014 and the Germanwings crash of 2015 prove all too grimly. Monitoring and managing employee behaviour in such roles can be challenging, with occupational health and employers needing to work closely together.
Employee health and safety – the challenge of monitoring behaviour in safety-critical roles
With the benefit of hindsight it is very easy to determine that neither Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot who deliberately crashed Germanwings flight 9525, or Harry Clarke, the driver whose blackout was responsible for the Glasgow bin lorry disaster, should have been let anywhere near their respective vehicles.
Lubitz, as the investigation into the 2014 crash that killed all 144 passengers and six crew members determined, had previously been treated for suicidal tendencies and declared “unfit to work” by a doctor, yet was able to keep this information from his employer.
Clarke, whose crash killed six people and injured 15 others, had suffered a previous blackout but had not disclosed the incident on his heavy goods vehicle licence renewal, despite such self-reporting being mandatory.
Vital role of OH
What both tragedies highlight is both how uniquely challenging it can be for employers to manage employees working in safety-critical roles, but also the vital role that occupational health can play.
As Optima Health Consultant Occupational Physician Dr Alan Scott highlights, employers need to consider a wide range of factors when it comes to managing and monitoring employees working in safety-critical roles and, crucially, these may change and evolve.
These factors can include (but are not limited to) assessing and monitoring basic competency to carry out the role; an individual’s fitness (in all senses) to undertake that role on an ongoing basis; the role and impact of tiredness and stress; the impact of organisational, cultural or managerial systems (especially shift working and oversight); the role of learning and training; the role of risk (appetite, awareness and prevention); and the role and/or probability of factors such as human error, distractions, mistakes and so forth.
Within all these factors, the role and input of occupational health can be critical. As Alan explains: “Managers of employees working in safety-critical work roles must ensure they have suitable and sufficient arrangements in place to monitor the competence and fitness of safety-critical workers. OH will often be the pivot around which these arrangements, protocols and processes are created and managed.”
Finally, it is important that organisations, and managers, are aware of the various tools and resources available in this area, notably those created by the Health and Safety Executive.
These include its guidance RR271 Recruiting safe employees for safety critical roles and its guidance on competence.