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Can Error-Prone Staff Be Spotted?

MANY ACCIDENTS in nuclear power facilities are caused by human error, such as a lapse of attention or a misjudgment. The underlying cause of such errors may be factors like drug use, fatigue, or even a stressful personal situation.

Russian researchers are currently collaborating with U.S. scientists from Sandia National Laboratories on a way to test nuclear workers for these types of factors. Roughly translated, this is a “readiness for work” test, and the idea is being adapted from a model that the Russians now use on rail workers.

One event that motivated the Russian researchers to try to develop this tool was a recent accident where a worker dealing with nuclear material had a lapse in attention that led to his death.

What the Russian researchers are looking for “are objective measures that can be done in a short amount of time, on a day when a person is going to be doing something involving some kind of critical operation,” says Elaine Hinman-Sweeney, Sandia technical staff principal member.

Sandia human factors and cognition experts are working with the Russians to help figure out what to measure and how, says Hinman-Sweeney.

She says the current test design used on the rail workers, which employs a stress response tool developed at Russia’s Saint Petersburg State University, has three components: testing of a relevant skill set; a physiology test, which includes heart-rate variability monitoring; and a stressor-response test.

The stressor-response test might entail the subject donning headphones and having to work under stressors such as alarm bells ringing or someone speaking critically about their work. Each person would be tested within the parameters of their own past performance, rather than compared with other workers.

The Sandia researchers’ role will be to contribute to the design of the program and to validate the factors it analyzes with help from Sandia’s human factors organization, says Hinman-Sweeney.

There’s nothing quite like the readiness-to-work test that’s in development, says Hinman-Sweeney. But power plants and laboratories that deal with nuclear material and reactors do have several controls in place to ensure that people are fit to work and capable of doing the jobs they are assigned.

For example, facilities that deal with nuclear materials have fitness-for-duty programs. Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL) fitness-for-duty program assesses individuals after receiving referrals on them, according to Tom Locke, who runs LANL’s Employee Assistance Program.

The referrals might arise from such instances as someone displaying evidence of substance abuse or from an individual who has used an extensive amount of sick leave. The evaluation is medical and psychological. It typically takes about two weeks.

Additionally, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires that its licensees have a fitness-for-duty program, which they recently revised. The new program specifically addresses fatigue by outlining “strict work-hour requirements for personnel holding positions related to the safety and security of the plant,” and by providing a process for workers to self-declare themselves as fatigued, according to NRC spokesperson Holly Harrington.

A proposed rule would require psychological reassessments of individuals who perform duties critical to safety and security of nuclear plants, says Harrington.  “In addition, on a continuing basis, licensees are required to [implement] a Behavioral Observation Program that is intended to detect and report aberrant behavior that might reflect negatively on an individual’s trustworthiness or reliability,” says Harrington. There are currently random drug tests mandated by the NRC’s fitness-for-duty program, as well as testing “for cause.”

Even if Sandia and the Russian scientists are successful in developing reliable tests, the program may still run into some resistance. First of all, it would take about 15 minutes per test. That means that any worker involved in a critical operation would lose 15 minutes of work time. Additionally, there will have to be staff members available to conduct the tests when needed.

However, those concerns are moot for now, because the Sandia program is awaiting additional government funding, says Hinman-Sweeney. One of the keys to getting more funding might be to prove that the program can be adapted to other industries as well. For example, it might work well for air traffic control, she says.

“At Sandia, we do a lot of what we call ‘work for others,’ so if somebody were to come in and say, ‘well, can you take this and make it applicable to our needs,’ whatever those might be, the answer would be yes,” says Hinman-Sweeney. “And we just have to figure out how to go about doing that.”