How can Employers Keep Airport and Airline Workers Safe?
October 6, 2020
Airline workers have always faced risks as they move around large aircrafts, lift heavy baggage, and interact with the public. Since the onset of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, airline workers have been exposed to additional hazards. All employees, including airline workers, have the right to perform their jobs in a safe work environment. Employers are responsible for ensuring workplace safety protocols. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets federal standards for workplace safety and conducts periodic inspections of various workplaces. Certain aspects of airline worker safety have also come under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The following explains the risks that airline workers face and the standards that employers must follow to protect their employees.
OSHA Investigates Airline Worker Safety Complaints
Several years ago, OSHA launched an investigation into hundreds of complaints filed by employees of a major airline at Newark International Airport. The investigation concluded that the high rate of injuries among the airline employees was due to systemic problems in the company’s baggage-handling operations and procedures, including the following:
- Short, thick posts erected in front of baggage conveyor belts, which exposed baggage handlers to unnecessary lifting, bending, and reaching hazards.
- Duel-tier conveyor belts that forced employees to reach overhead to lift or access baggage.
- Hand-held scanners exposed employees to repetitive motion injuries from the continuous pushing, pulling, twisting, and lateral movements needed to operate the scanners.
- Confined areas of the aircraft cargo bay that exacerbated the effects of prolonged loading and unloading baggage.
Based on OSHA’s investigation, the Department of Labor sued the airline. A settlement was reached, requiring the airline to install mechanical conveyor belts to reduce hazardous lifting. The airline also made modifications to mitigate repetitive stress injury risks.
Common Airport Hazards
Airline workers, as well as passengers, may confront unique hazards whenever they enter an airport, including the following:
Noise: Aircraft engines produce harmful levels of noise; the amount depends on the size of the plane and other factors. According to Yale University, a jet engine at takeoff can be as loud as 140 decibels. Any sustained exposure to noise above 85 decibels can produce hearing loss. Baggage handlers, ground crew, and ramp agents are exposed to loud noise continually throughout their shifts. Employers must provide adequate hearing protection to these employees to prevent them from suffering permanent hearing impairment. Work-related hearing loss is covered by Workers’ Compensation in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Airline workers should have their hearing checked regularly to ensure they are not suffering impairment as a result of their working conditions.
Construction: Airports are oftentimes under construction. Construction accidents can injure passersby and workers as a result of debris, exposed wiring, objects falling from scaffolding, and other dangers. Airline workers may also be exposed to asbestos in airport construction areas. Prior to 1980, asbestos was commonly used in all types of buildings. Many airports undergoing renovation today were built before that time. Asbestos has been linked to mesothelioma, a type of lung cancer.
Security threats: These are always present in large airports, as terrorists and other bad actors seek out public places with large crowds to wreak havoc. Although terrorist attacks virtually disappeared during the pandemic, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects that, as air travel increases again, new threats may evolve through the use of drones, cyberwarfare, and other means.
What Risks are Specific to Airline Occupations?
The airline industry comprises a wide variety of occupations. The types of airline jobs most familiar to the public include the following:
Ramp agents and ground crew. These workers perform many of their tasks outside on the tarmac, loading and unloading heavy baggage, fueling aircrafts, and directing planes in and out of the gate. Their jobs are especially hazardous in cold and wet weather, when the employees may be required to de-ice the plane using pressurized hoses that spray a mixture of glycol and water. Common injuries suffered by ramp agents and ground crew include the following:
- Sprains, strains, and other common back injuries
- Knee injuries as a result of kneeling inside cargo bins
- Slip and fall injuries, particularly when de-icing a plane
- Burns from fuel
- Respiratory problems due to exposure of exhaust fumes
- Hearing loss
- Repetitive strain injuries
- Struck-by object accidents
- Caught-between accidents
Gate crew and customer service agents. These workers are also required to lift heavy baggage and may suffer sprains and repetitive strain injuries of the back and musculoskeletal system. Job-induced stress is common among gate crew and customer service agents as they continually face frustrated travelers when boarding the plane, assigning seats, monitoring jet ways, and dealing with canceled flights. Left untreated, job stress can lead to sleep disruption, heart conditions, and high blood pressure. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is also common among these employees.
Flight attendants. Flight attendants are subjected to all the workplace injuries and conditions listed previously as they deal with the public and handle baggage. Musculoskeletal disorders of the back and neck can develop after years of shifting passenger luggage in overhead bins. In addition, flight attendants are subject to the following conditions:
- Herniated disks, concussions, cuts, and bruises from in-flight turbulence
- Shift work disorder (SWD) as a result of schedule changes requiring erratic sleep schedules
- Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems from constant disruption of the body’s circadian rhythm
Flight attendants also face a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19, as they are in the confined space of the aircraft cabin with passengers, often for long periods of time.
Additional Risks to Airline Workers Due to COVID-19
Since March 2020, airline workers have faced additional risks due to COVID-19. Potential sources of exposure include directly assisting persons with COVID-19, as well as handling baggage, boarding passes, documents, or credit cards belonging to someone who has contracted the virus. Flight attendants may face additional exposure on confined aircrafts, although most airlines have installed specialized ventilation systems designed to filter out air.
Employers are responsible for developing and implementing a safety plan to protect employees from COVID-19 exposure, which includes the following:
- Policies to identify sick employees and enable them to stay home, including flexible sick leave
- Procedures for identifying and responding to passengers who may be ill
- Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for all employees and access to soap, water, and effective hand sanitizers
- Adequate supplies of disposable disinfectant wipes for cleaning workstations and objects
- Resources for frequent cleaning of employee break rooms and common areas
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers fact sheets that provide detailed guidance on how airline employers can protect their workers from exposure to COVID-19. Workers who suffer work-related illness or injury are eligible for Workers’ Compensation. When these injuries or illnesses arise out of the negligence of a third party, workers may also be able to file a third-party claim against the negligent entity. However, establishing liability for developing COVID-19 in the workplace is a new area of litigation. Employees who believe they contracted COVID-19 in the workplace should contact a qualified Workers’ Compensation attorney.
Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation Attorneys at Galfand Berger LLP Advocate for Injured Airline Workers
Workers in every industry face unique job hazards. Employers are required to follow standards for protecting employees from unnecessary risks. If you suffered a workplace injury, contact the Philadelphia Workers’ Compensation attorneys at Galfand Berger LLP. Our experienced attorneys are always available to answer any questions you may have about your work injury claim. Call us at 800-222-8792 or fill out our online contact form for a free consultation. From our offices in Philadelphia, Bethlehem, Lancaster, and Reading, Pennsylvania, we proudly help injured workers throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, including Allentown and Harrisburg.