NTSB Recommends Annual Physical Performance Testing of School Bus Drivers

Yellow school bus. Vector illustrationShortly before the holidays, the NTSB offered a blog post that included recommendations for school bus operators as a result of the investigation into a December 2017 school bus accident in Oakland, Iowa.   The tragic accident took the lives of a school bus driver and a 16 year old student when the exhaust pipe of the bus was blocked by the side of a drainage ditch. While all of the bus exits – emergency non-emergency – were operational, the report suggests that the student and driver succumbed to smoke inhalation when the student may have been attempting to help get the bus driver off of the bus.

In November 2017, the driver had visited his doctor due to complaints of pain and stated that “he could walk if he used a cane or crutches, that he experienced pain that prevented his sitting for more than 30 minutes (or standing for more than 10 minutes), and that he was sleeping less than 4 hours a night.” The school bus driver had been scheduled for a lower back surgery that would have occurred just 2 days after the fatal bus accident due to complaints of chronic lower back pain with weakness of his right leg. 

The NTSB final report notes that the school district was aware of his physical disabilities and his scheduled surgery but did not remove him from service. In addition to his physical complaints, numerous complaints about his driving performance were provided to the school district previous to the event but not documented.  However, finding number 9 concludes:

“It is likely that the bus driver’s progressive chronic back disease, which caused severe chronic pain, impaired his ability to evacuate the school bus himself or to assist the passenger to evacuate.”

The report also notes that the school district did not follow the district’s own requirements defining physical abilities of school bus drivers including appropriate fit for duty clearance of a driver that was not able to perform the required safety duties of the position.

Finding number 10 states:

“The use of physical performance tests on both a routine and as-needed basis can help identify physically unfit drivers who have a valid medical certificate but who might not be able to perform required safety duties, especially in an emergency.”

It is important to remember that a valid medical certificate does not necessarily indicate that the holder can perform the essential postural and physical demands of a specific position. The valid medical certificate only indicates that the holder meets the 4 non-discretionary standards (vision, hearing, epilepsy, diabetes mellitus) and 9 discretionary standards (hypertension, cardiovascular disease, respiratory function, loss of limb, limb impairment, neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction, mental disorders, drug use, and alcoholism) as outlined in 49 CFR 391.41.   The valid medical certificate indicates that a physician has determined them to meet the 13 standards but does not include a functional abilities test based on the essential minimum postural and physical demands of a position based on validated measurements of the required tasks.

Finding number 10 provides the basis for the following recommendation, which is directed to 44 states including New Jersey, made in the report:

“Revise your school bus driver requirements so that all drivers must pass a physical performance test on hiring and at least annually, and also whenever a driver’s physical condition changes in a manner that could affect his or her ability to physically perform school bus driver duties, including helping passengers evacuate a bus in an emergency.” (Emphasis mine)

School bus drivers perform a variety of tasks, in addition to driving the bus, that have specific postural and physical requirements, including:

  • Range of motion/strength to enter/exit the bus from the front side entrance, rear exit, or the wheel chair entrance.
  • Check roof top emergency exits (reaching to 72+ inches and applying vertical pushing and pulling forces) as part of the daily pre-drive inspection.
  • Maneuvering and securing (bending, kneeling, reaching) of wheelchairs when driving students who utilize wheelchairs.
  • The ability to bend/kneel to check under seats as well as view underneath bus.
  • The physical ability to provide assistance in seating/securing (seatbelts) for special needs students in the event that a bus aide is not provided for this task.
  • The physical ability to help move a physically incapacitated passenger from the bus in the event that the passenger needs to be moved to safety prior to the arrival of trained first responders.

Many states, including New Jersey, suffer from a shortage of school bus drivers. However, the NTSB report states:

“The NTSB is also aware that many medically certified school bus drivers with safe driving records have physical limitations that could prevent them from passing a PPT. However, the consequences of a driver not being able to evacuate a school bus or assist passengers in an emergency cannot be ignored.” (emphasis mine)

Additional recommendations by the NTSB include:

  • Appropriate fire suppression systems in the engine compartment
  • Usage of 911 emergency buttons as opposed to radioing the transportation supervisor (The driver of the bus contacted the transportation supervisor by phone after the fire started rather than calling 911.  The call to 911 was not immediately placed by the transporation staff but by the student’s mother  after the family was notified.)
  • Making sure that students, teachers, and other district employees are trained in evacuating through all of the exits, including manually operated loading doors, in the event that a bus driver becomes incapacitated.

Importance of Job Rotation, Job Title, and Essential Demands (and baseball)

I have had two separate discussions this week involving job titles, job descriptions, and when employees are required to do jobs that are outside of their “specific” job title – but still essential job demands of their overall “job title”.  During both discussions, a key detail to the “specific” job title in question was that the specific job title falls under a much broader category.

I try to avoid sports analogies when meeting with clients because they can sometimes be cliché, especially depending upon the setting.  However, a recent Phillies game went into extra innings and became a great example of the situation that both clients were questioning.   While we refer to most major league baseball players by the position that they play, the overall job title that applies to them is baseball player.  During this extra inning game, the Phillies manager had to make some adjustments in the 13th inning (not really different than unplanned overtime) which included moving an outfielder to pitching and having a pitcher play in left field.  While not uncommon, moves like this don’t happen in every extra inning game.  What made this game memorable is that Vince Velasquez, the pitcher who was placed in left field, made two highlight worthy throws to throw runners out.  Each of these players were moved from their “normal” job to a different job, but still under the same title, and were able to fulfill their role – well maybe not for the outfielder who pitched because the Phillies lost the game.

We have several clients that use a system similar to this, in that when a person applies for a position with the company, they will apply for Job Title “A”.  For these clients, Job Title “A” will have several sub-titles or location areas that the employee may be directed to work within after company specific training.  They may have been hired with experience in other sub-titles or locations but these companies, much like the military, will place these new employees where they have a demand.   One of the companies uses a title of Mechanical for the position.  Those within the Mechanical position may work in carpentry, plumbing, electrical, rigging, welding, etc.  While an employee may be placed in one of these areas dependent upon company needs, they are all trained to be able to perform the tasks of mechanical employees so that when the need arises they can fill that particular need.  On the public sector side of this issue, we have seen similar job descriptions that require staff of public works departments or the buildings and grounds department within a school district have to be able to perform multiple roles as needed.

Cross job utilization can allow for companies to identify modified duty accommodations that an employee may be able to fill, help to spread out overtime over a larger group of employees if an individual employee is injured or ill, and allows some employers to reduce the amount of different job titles that they need to perform post-offer pre-employment tests for – if the job demands to be able to perform across multiple roles can be demonstrated to be an essential demand.

**  Of note for the diehard baseball fans, prior to these highlight reel throws Vince Velasquez was famous for throwing out a runner using his left arm after being struck in the right arm by a 96 mph line drive during the 2018 season.

Job Demand Lessons from the US Open

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Sporting events with storied traditions are not typically the settings for learning new lessons in the world of essential demands for job positions.  However, the 2018 US Open is a great lesson for employers in reviewing both their “essential job demands” as well as their post-offer physical abilities testing process. 

Each of the four tennis Grand Slam tournaments has their own specific styles – Wimbledon has grass courts and white tennis outfits, the French open is a demanding tournament due to its clay surface, the Australian Open has hard surfaces like the US Open, but the roof can be closed so play can continue during inclement weather, and the US Open is played on a hard court surface.  Until this year, the US Open had one unique functional difference from its three peers – ball boys and girls were required to be able to throw the ball overhand across the court, accurately, to their peers when balls were needed.  In the other three tournaments, the ball is rolled across the courts, underhand.  The US Open is also the only Grand Slam tournament that allowed adults over the age of 18 to apply as a ball boy or girl.

This year, the US Open determined that by changing the essential demand for this exchange of tennis balls on the court from throwing to rolling, it would open the applicant pool to a broader base of applicants. The US Open has not attributed the change to a decrease in the number of applicants with a strong enough throwing arm and adequate throwing accuracy but to a desire to increase the applicant pool to include those who may not have been able to be applicants due to this singular demand but meet all of the other demands.  This change marks an end to a several decades long tradition of throwing the tennis balls.

But, was it truly an essential demand to begin with?  Not necessarily.  As has been mentioned, most tournaments are able to function adequately with the balls being rolled across the courts.  It was an entertaining method of performing the task, but changing the method does not reduce the completion of the end result – the ball gets from one side of the court, whether it is rolled or thrown. 

What essential job tasks do you have that may have another method or technique for being performed that does not impair (either from a safety or a financial hardship aspect) the end result of the job task?  If this task is changed to an alternate method, have you accurately modified your post-offer physical abilities tests or the job demands description that are utilized during treatment and return to work testing? 

Post-Offer Physical Abilities Success Story

“You can arrive at your dream a lot of different ways, but you also arrive there as a different version of yourself based on whatever pathway you choose.”  – Joanna Gaines

Post-offer physical abilities testing is something that should really be straight forward.  Testing based on the minimum essential postural and physical demands for the position that has been offered to the candidate.  Seems pretty simple, the candidate either meets or does not meet the minimum essential demands.  But, it isn’t always that simple because the process involves people.

When a candidate fails a post-offer physical abilities test, the employer has to choose what path they will take.  Some employers may look to see if the candidate’s abilities meet the demands of different position.  Other employers may offer the candidate the opportunity to repeat the test at a later date.  Some employers may choose to not re-test.

One of the employers that we work closely with allows candidates to work on improving in the areas in which they did not meet the demands and attempt the test again with the next new hire class.  This particular employer has a fairly high passing rate (which is due to a phenomenal hiring process by the employer that helps to make sure that the demands of the position are consistently reinforced during every contact with the candidate), so the number of candidates who do not meet the demands is fairly low.  Of those that do not meet the demands on the initial test, some come back to test again.  It is a good job with solid benefits and is worth the time and effort for these candidates to try again.  Nearly everybody who re-tests comes back physically stronger and with improved range of motion and physical abilities and passes the test.  Many comment that not meeting the demands on the initial test was a significant wake-up call about their previous level of fitness.  They wish they were able to start the jobs with their original classmates but they are also content with the fact that they have not only done what was required to earn the job but have made lifestyle changes that will benefit them for years to come.  We don’t mind repeat tests for this employer as we know most candidates return, changed for the better.

Recently, we had a second test for a candidate from a different employer.  This candidate’s scenario was much different.  It was the first post-offer failure for the employer and it was a result of lack of medical treatment for an auto-immune disorder that attacked the candidate’s upper extremities in a way that did not allow the candidate to meet the minimum essential demands.  The employer did not have alternative positions with decreased physical demands to offer.  As the candidate had not yet received treatment for their condition, we suggested to the employer (along with the instruction of talking to their lawyers) that if the candidate has a change in physical function due to treatment that they be re-tested. 

When this candidate was scheduled for a second test, I was unsure of what to expect.  Luckily, the candidate returned with significantly improved function due to appropriate medical treatment and they were able to meet the minimum essential postural and physical demands of the position.  The candidate told us that as a result of not meeting the demands for a position,  they realized that they needed to become more proactive with their physician in seeking a successful treatment regimen for their condition.  For this candidate, not only did they obtain the position they wanted on the second test, they were able to become a successful advocate for their own healthcare status and understand the importance of that in keeping their condition in check. 

In each of these success cases, the post-offer candidates arrived at Point B – meeting the demands and obtaining the position – but they also arrived at Point B as improved versions of themselves with better fitness and abilities, and in the second case a better advocate for their own healthcare.