A Video Game That Tells If Employees Are Fit For WorkJoan O'C. Hamilton
For fun, Robert Anguay likes to take his two stepsons out to play video games. He often drops a few quarters himself. But every day before he begins work at Silicon Valley's Ion Implant Services Inc., Anguay lines up with his fellow delivery drivers, stands in front of a console, and "plays" a short video game. There's no fooling around here: Unless the machine spits out a receipt confirming that the drivers have passed the video test, they can't climb behind the wheel.
Using random drug testing to promote workplace safety is an issue that has been bedeviling employers and civil libertarians. Now, a tiny Alameda (Calif.) company, Performance Factors Inc. (PFI), is pushing a simple, computer-based test that could go a lot further toward determining an employee's fitness for work than drug tests ever have. Instead of detecting chemicals in the blood, PFI's Factor 1000 software system tests a worker's hand-eye coordination to measure fitness for duty.
ONE FAILURE. Such big companies as the diversified food processor Cargill Inc. and defense contractor Hercules Inc. have joined a handful of smaller concerns as customers of PFI. The company now is testing workers who perform a range of tasks, from machine tooling to driving tour buses to handling poisonous gases and high-voltage equipment. The privately held, two-year-old company has also raised roughly $2 million from some blue-ribbon financial backers, including San Francisco billionaire Gordon Getty, Chicago's Pritzker family, and Itel Corp. Chairman Samuel Zell. How come? Simple. The idea seems to be working. Results from companies who've been using the Factor 1000 system are impressive (table)--and sometimes surprising.
Companies annually pay PFI about $200 per employee to install software and a small console hooked up to a personal computer. When employees report to work, they go to the computer then type in an ID code. Next, they use a knob to center a diamond-shaped image swaying between two posts on the screen. Experience shows Factor 1000 demands considerable concentration and practice: This reporter (cold sober) failed miserably in four attempts.
When Factor 1000 is in actual use, companies have employees perform the test many times to establish a base average. Then, they're measured against their average, which is stored in the computer. What to do with an employee who keeps failing? Administer a drug test? Fire the person? That is the toughest issue, employers acknowledge. What Factor 1000 provides them, however, is a precise, performance-related basis for action.
If a worker fails, some companies refer the individual to a supervisor, others to an employee-assistance program. Repeated test failures could lead to disciplinary action or outright dismissal, though PFI says it doesn't know of any such cases yet. In any event, an impaired worker can be kept away from dangerous tasks.
Intriguingly, most failures so far don't appear to involve drug or alcohol use, says Marc Silverman, PFI's president and co-founder. He adds: "Severe fatigue or illness can be more dangerous than a disgusting drunk person because it's not visible." Companies report that it's common for some employees who fail to admit that they are so distracted with personal problems they're not fit to perform a sensitive job on a given day.
That's consistent with other evidence that suggests mandatory drug testing isn't helping to deter accidents: A recent Federal Railroad Administration report, for example, found only 3.2% of workers involved in railroad accidents tested positively for drugs. Cliff Palefsky, an employment attorney who urged Silverman to form PFI, argues that the PFI approach could help prevent those accidents. Results of urine tests, he observes, "only arrive in time for the funerals." H. Lewis Page, general manager of Paumier Co., a tool-and-die company based in Canton, Ohio, that's using Factor 1000, says: "If people are performing their job properly, I don't care what they're doing at home."
SWAMPED. Curiously, the software itself is nothing new. PFI licenses it from a Hawthorne (Calif.) research outfit called Systems Technology Inc. that developed computer programs for the Air Force in the late 1950s to help pick pilots capable of flying unstable aircraft. The so-called "critical tracking task" was later modified for research on drunk driving, but until recently it wasn't sold for industrial uses.
Silverman claims he has been swamped by inquiries from businesses, ranging from insurance companies looking to urge Factor 1000 on clients with safety problems to a major appliance company considering putting consoles in trucks rigged so they won't start unless the driver can pass the test. It seems inevitable that competitors sooner or later will give PFI a run for its money. But for now, the little outfit is scrambling to market an idea that seems so obvious it's hard to figure why nobody thought of it before.
ONE CASE STUDY R.F. White, an Upland (Calif.) petroleum distributor, has been using the Factor 1000 system for a year and reported these results: ACCIDENTS - 67% ERRORS -92% WORKERS' COMPENSATION CLAIMS -64% DATA: COMPANY REPORTS