Overview

News that a Lufthansa operated aircraft crashed into the mountains in

France captured the hearts, minds and imagination of people around

the world. How could something like this happen? In the days that

followed CNN and others, used their resource might to dig deeper into

the story. When the news broke that the pilot of the aircraft had

suffered from depression and that the airline had some prior knowledge

of the pilot’s mental health state, the conversation dipped to the onus of

an employer to advise the public of risks associated with an employee’s

know performance and the risks associated with pilot unchecked mental

health issues.

Reports that the Airbus 320 crash was a deliberate act of a copilot

reportedly with mental health issues only served to sharpen demands

for a more stringent framework that better balances the screening for

mental health issues in workplaces where health and safety, particularly

when public safety is paramount.

Perhaps like many others, I found myself discussing the issue with a

colleague. Of course, I was interested in discussing the issue from a

workplace perspective. Though my colleague and I started at opposite

ends of the spectrum, I came around and accepted that perhaps there

are plenty of situations in which the public should have a limited right to

inquire and be provided answers about an employee’s known mental

health issue that gives rise to a massive public safety risk.

Arriving at that perspective is a massive departure from my usual

principles. Of course, my initial reaction was that the public delving into

an employee’s health history is rather invasive. Moreover, providing

anyone with such a broad set of rights simply leads us down a road

mired with opportunities to discriminate against persons with mental

health challenges. In other words, I started out with a very narrow

analysis of the workplace issues. With some reflection it is clear that

balance is key in any society. No right can be so absolute that it gives

rise to unconscionable and bizarre results. From my perspective while

no employee should be forced to disclose her or his mental health

issues in any carte blanche way, it is equally true that no employee

should be able to hide behind legal protections and public the public ad

serious risks in the face of non-disclosure.

The question then comes down to where to strike the balance. Firstly, in

my view, erring on the side of caution in some cases is the most prudent

course of action for an employer. The requirement for an employee to

disclose mental health issues that may pose public safety risk should be

a measured one. In other words, the extent of disclosure ought to be

proportional to the nature and scope of the public health risks involved.

While current laws my already provide a balanced approach between

the need for an employer to know about an employee’s mental health

condition and the requirement of an employee to disclose such private

and potentially stigmatizing information, there is a gap. What about the

public’s right to know. While, it is wrong to believe that all employers are

so motivated by the bottom line that they would holus bolus abdicate

their responsibility to protect public safety, the Lufthansa case points to

the contrary.

If it is true that Lufthansa knew or ought to have known about the

copilot’s mental health condition but still permitted him to fly, then there

is a huge problem. In either case there is a problem because the

mental health issue should have been caught. For the rest of the world,

this Lufthansa case is instructive because it draws into focus the need

for employers to be intrusive and demand medical proof to substantiate

an employee’s claims of good health.

Managing workplace mental health issues is not a new phenomenon.

However, given the number of deliberate commercial aircraft crashes

that has occurred in the past thirty years there is good reason to pause

and examine: 1. how continually to screen for mental health issues

amongst commercial pilots; 2. How to involve the flying public in

keeping organization’s accountable.

A pilot’s job is quite stressful with a high degree of responsibility. Given

the level of pilot stress, who knows the extent to which mental health

issues, is an occupational hazard among this classification group?

When a pilot deliberately crashes an aircraft the motive is always

suicide which crosses into the line of mental health issues.

A vigorous process ought to be adopted. As a condition of employment

all pilots ought to be forced to agree to undertake a mental health

examination at least every six months, if not quarterly. Of course, any

such examination ought to be done by a reputable mental health

organization and not a single practitioner, for obvious reasons. The

reviewing practitioners would have access by way of a consent signed

at the time of employment that remains effective through the pilot’s

tenure, to the pilot’s entire medical file, of course at the employer’s

expense. In between mental health assessments, pilots should be

encouraged to provide details of a copilot’s behavior that gives rise to

serious mental health concerns. While this latter suggestion may give

rise to bad blood within a particular pilot group, public health ought to

trump bad blood between pilots. In any event, any such bad blood is a

subject for management, and team building activities. The public’s

safety should never be compromised.

Finding the right approach and balance is much trickier for the second

question which pertains to passengers’ right to known. Passengers

board aircrafts daily without having a clue as to who is flying the aircraft,

let alone the pilot’s mental health history. Should passengers know a

pilot’s mental health history? There is a very strong argument for the

negative position. On the other hand, passengers currently have no way

of knowing whether, as a corporation, the airline has abdicated its

responsibility to ensure that workplace mental health issues do not

adversely affect pilots judgment, skills, competence, and sense of

balance. If employee privacy rights are to trump the right of the public

reasonably to know the nature of the risks assumed when flying on a

passenger aircraft, then it is incumbent on airlines to be ultra vigilant

about discovering and treating mental health issues that may plague an

individual pilot, or pilots as a group. But in the wake of this recent

Lufthansa case, should the public have an independent right to obtain

information about a pilot’s mental health state through a limited

procedure. And if so, what is an appropriate procedure to accomplish

this goal while at the same time protect a pilot’s protection of private

medical information. I suppose the question really is how private should

this information be? On thing in is for absolute certain, the public should

not be put at risk simply because of corporate neglect.

Passengers may be wise to start asking and even demanding

information about a pilot’s safety history before they board an aircraft.

Imagine the likely impact on the industry if passengers simply took this

small step. It would force the industry to take a step towards create

balance between the passengers desire to known and the airline’s

desire to protect the private information of an employee. Though this

idea may be far-fetched, passenger probes and demands for

information serve only to improve safety, not reduce it. An employee’s

right to the protection of private mental health information ought to be

subservient when it collides with and is oppositional to the greater public

good of public safety. Passengers can start by asking questions. When

passengers in the United States and Canada start asking questions the

appropriate corporate functionaries will necessarily translate

passengers actions into liability issues resulting in a race to the gate to

find the appropriate balance.