Monday, July 2, 2012

TSA sleeping on the job

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

And now the firings are happening at another airport! This time security employees at Newark Airport were caught on video “sleeping on the job or failing to follow standard operating procedures for screening checked bags.”

Nothing surprising here about not complying with the rules – recall the results of the BEMOSA findings where bending, breaking and even going against the rules was commonplace!

But what should interest security and airport managers is the charge of “sleeping on the job.” While the details are not available, could it be that employees were” resting” in between flight arrivals/departures when no bags were in need of examination, or was it during actual periods of baggage flow?

More likely they utilized what we discovered in the BEMOSA ethnographic study as an effective system of work performance where employees paired into “idle-active” small groups, rotating from active to idle that allowed each employee to gain needed physical/mental rest from a stressful but routine job. This allowed the partner to be fully focused on his/her job when in active mode.

Let me put this into perspective: employees refer to these types of jobs as “being bored out your mind.” We are talking about routine jobs where the perceived probability of something terrible happening is extremely low. And this is how most airport employees see threats, mainly as false alarms and not likely to happen.

In our case of baggage handlers, checking inanimate lifeless bags constantly flowing by on a conveyor belt – picture Charlie Chapman in Modern Times – and making rule-based security decisions based on the technology (which most do not trust); where an alarm would mean stopping the flow, opening bags and/or recalling the passenger for a security interview (all at a price and underlying threat of being dismissed if too many false alarms are made!) could certainly justify employees going into the “idle-active” mode.

Until those who watched the “big brother” cameras and caught the “dissident workers,” the flow of bags and security levels seemed to work just fine.

So will firing baggage handlers who “sleep on the job” lead to increased airport security? Very doubtful. But putting more stress and pressure on employees to comply with the rules without taking into consideration the social work environment and adaptive ability of workers to cope with such work conditions, the outcomes will likely lead to more mistakes, more human errors and reduced security. So instead of firing them, perhaps it might have been a better idea to learn from them!


The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports).*

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