Safety Training Thursday – Planes, Trains & Automobiles – What We Learn from a Flight Attendant’s Flip Out or by Walking to Work

For the last two days, the biggest news story has been the dramatic exit of a flight attendant from a JetBlue plane via the emergency slide after a physical encounter with a passenger. Making the story so engaging is the number of different ways we can view it.

Is it a story about a passenger who refuses to comply with safety instructions? Or is it a story about an employee cracking up and endangering the safety of others? is it a story of workplace violence? Or is it a story about how to quit your job? For our purposes, we’ll focus on safety, as there are a number of lessons we can take away from the encounter.

To begin, the whole incident seems to have started with a passenger refusing to follow safety instructions. We must wonder what went through that person’s mind. Was she in a hurry that morning and so was behaving in an a-typical manner? Is she a frequent traveler who became numb to the safety instructions? Did she believe the rules to be unreasonable? Whatever the cause, from a safety perspective, the incident is in large part a human failure. Instructions were given, and the passenger elected not to follow them.

Next, let’s look at the actions of the flight attendant. He gave safety instructions and then intervened when the passenger violated those instructions, which is perfectly reasonable and in keeping with his responsibilities. The intervention resulted in a physical altercation. And so we must ask, did the flight attendant’s actions and/or demeanor in some way escalate the incident? What we do know is that his next actions were not in keeping with his responsibilities of securing passenger safety - the flight attendant went to the speaker and cursed at the passenger, grabbed a beer, activated the slide, and took off.

Regardless of the provocation, the flight attendant’s actions were no better than that of the passenger with whom he had his altercation. Not surprisingly, there has been an outpouring of support and sympathy for the flight attendant. Who among us has not wanted to do something outrageous in the face of an egregious wrong done against us? But that’s the fine line safety personnel must walk. It is human nature to want to be liked and to avoid conflict; nevertheless, flight attendants, safety managers, public safety officers and other safety personnel must remain above the fray, so to speak, and at all times serve as a model for others to follow.

Getting employees or others to follow safety rules and instructions has long been a challenge for employers and municipalities. And now, with increased fines and penalties, those responsible for safety are working harder than ever to get compliance. Yet, at some point, we have to look at the way in which we try to get people to comply. Was the JetBlue incident singularly a human failure, or is there something about the ‘system’ that’s broken? Perhaps the way JetBlue and other airlines perform their safety functions contributes to the issues that arise.

With this incident, there has been a lot of talk about how the experience of flying, with all of the fees, little leg room, etc., has put both passengers and employees in a foul mood and people are questioning if the growing incidents of flight rage are just symptomatic of a larger problem. Southwest Airlines has long been known for allowing employees to employ a sense of humor in performing routine tasks. As a not so infrequent flyer myself, I can attest to the fact that I have a harder time “tuning out” safety instructions on Southwest than I do when flying on other airlines.

While I often find the Southwest humor maudlin, I am listening. In that way, Southwest is taking advantage of human behavior. Humans are hard wired to ignore the routine and focus on what’s different. I read once that it requires a change of five percent or more for most people notice the change (Don’t quote me on that) and whether or not it’s true, if we want people to be safe, it is not enough for us to tell them what to do, we must make sure that they’ve heard and understood.

One aspect regarding the JetBlue incident I have not seen discussed is the reaction of the other passengers. Did any of them think to discourage their fellow passenger from breaking the rules or to support the flight attendant? Recent research suggests that peer to peer interactions have the greatest ability to influence others. We see this most acutely when it comes to bullying, but also increasingly in others areas of our lives, like divorce, weight gain, and our happiness quotient.

All of this was on my mind this morning as I was coming into work, which is why I was so disturbed today by an event that is a frequent occurrence on my commute – people crossing train tracks when the lights are flashing and the barricade is down. It’s the kind of behavior that would make a flight attendant take a slide. What I think is this is exactly the same sort of behavior that led to the JetBlue incident. People choosing to break the rules – in this case the law – because they believe their immediate needs supersede the rules, or because they minimize the danger of the situation.

In my opinion, contributing to the dangerous behavior of the people above is their experience of A) the routine of waiting for trains at this crossing – I’m guessing most of the people, like me, cross at this location several times a week, if not several times a day, B) at the time of the video, the signal had been going for over five minutes as a series of commuter trains passed by, and for at least 30 seconds we could see no trains approaching, just one sitting several hundred yards from the street and C) seeing others breaking the rules and ‘getting away with it.” In sharing the above, I don’t mean to sound self-righteous – like most, I am guilty of my indiscretions. Instead, I hope it serves as a reminder that we must be vigilant in our pursuit of safety. That we must, in our safety training, prepare for and make allowances for human behavior; otherwise, it will be an exercise in futility.

A perfect example of this is driving while texting or on the phone. We all know it’s a bad idea, an incredibly dangerous activity, and yet, my personal observations tell me it is a problem we have not yet begun to fight with any kind of success. Laws are not enough – we must find a way to change human behavior – not simply legislate against it. As I stood there at the train crossing this morning, waiting for the okay to cross, what kept me from crossing sooner was not so much a dedication to the rule of law or safety as it was my sense of responsibility to my family to come home, and not wanting to alarm the train engineer, who must worry every day about hitting someone that is acting stupid at the many crossings the train passes on each run.

This week’s featured training is on Behavior-based Safety Training. Course Coverage Behavior-based Safety Training provides supervisors with an overview of the concepts of behavior-based safety including how to apply behavior-based safety techniques in their day-to-day duties and responsibilities.

Training Options Call 1.888.362.2007, or visit Workplace Safety Training for information about our on-demand training offering, including a list of available courses. If you’re interested in an option that does not require all employees to be present at the same time, you can take a pass on a classroom style format and consider an online solution. - The MSDSonline Compliance Team-