Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Airport Ground Crews: Grind 'em Up And Spit 'em Out

Before you open up your book next time you get on a plane, take a look out the window and check out all the work being done on the tramac below you.

Keith L. Alexander of the Washington Post penned a great article today about the hazards faced by airport ground crews. It aint' pretty:

So far this year, four ground workers have been killed or seriously injured, according to data collected by The Washington Post. In one incident, a mechanic died in January when he was sucked into the engine of a Continental Airlines aircraft at El Paso International Airport. A month later, a baggage handler for Comair, a Delta Air Lines regional carrier, was killed when he was struck by a baggage cart at the Detroit airport. Three serious or deadly accidents occurred in 2005 and two in 2004.

Through the busy summer season, ground workers have been under increased pressure to load and unload bags swiftly and to ensure that the aircraft are prepared for safe travel. Many financially strapped carriers have reduced their staffs, leaving more work for the remaining employees. Some airlines have been hiring ground workers at lower wages to cut costs.

I've spent some time working on health and safety issues with baggage handlers and other ground crew and it's pretty depressing. First, they fall in a gray area in terms of OSHA enforcement. Section 4(b)1 of the OSH Act prevents OSHA from enforcing its regulations if a working condition is regulated by another Federal agency such as the Federal Aviation Administration -- even if that agency is doing a lousy job. Safety conditions for flight attendants, for example, can't be enforced by OSHA, because the FAA claims jurisdiction. Baggage handlers and other ground crew, I learned when I was at OSHA, are in a gray area. If they're actually working on the plane, they're covered by the FAA. If they're on the ground, sometimes their OSHA's and sometimes their FAA's. When I first arrived at OSHA, the policy differed from Region to Region, although I believe it's been straightened out now.

The other problem is their working conditions. As the post describes:
They fix planes and load and unload heavy bags in sweltering heat and frigid cold. For many passengers, they are invisible, though they toil right underfoot. Airport ground workers do their jobs amid the deafening roar of aircraft engines and the arrival and departure of tanker-size jetliners. They must avoid stepping in oil slicks and watch out for baggage carts whizzing by.


While serious injuries and death occur, the most common injuries among ground workers result from heavy lifting, in many cases causing severe back strain. According to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 4.53 injuries and fatalities per 100 airport ground workers in 2004, the latest year for which data are available. By comparison, coal miners had a rate of 6.58 injuries and fatalities per 100 workers; in construction, the rate was 5.77.
When I was working at the AFL-CIO, I received a call from a disabled USAir ground employee who had seriously injured his back unloading bags. He worked on the smaller commuter planes where you have to lift the heavy luggage without being able to stand up in the luggage compartments -- not exactly proper lifting techniques. The company was fighting his workers comp claim. (Must have hurt his back bowling or playing tennis.) He couldn't believe that the company he had given his life to was treating him like garbage.

The reason for the article and the current attention to employee health and safety is a three day symposium that the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are co-hosting for the first time to focus on "improving safety on the tarmac at the nation's airports." All of the airlines quoted in the article claim that safety is a first priority. The families of those killed on the job disagree:
Yolanda Corbett, 32, was attracted to a subsidiary of the airline during an earlier hiring fare in 2005. She liked the free travel offered to employees and a chance to take her two young daughters to Disney World. The pay, about $9.75 an hour, was low, but it represented steady work for the single mother who had held such odd jobs as babysitting after being laid off from an accounting position at a local Welfare to Work office.

For two weeks, US Airways baggage handlers instructed the D.C. resident on the proper way to lift bags and navigate the busy runways of Reagan National Airport in a baggage-loading cart. She received a 100 percent accuracy rating in her training tests. In her third week on the job, Corbett was killed when she lost control of a baggage cart, which rammed the side of a regional jet, pinning her under the aircraft and severing her spine.

The NTSB attributed the accident to Corbett's inexperience with driving the cart.

Corbett's mother, Mary, said her daughter was trained to operate the baggage cart, but the day she was killed was the first time she had driven it by herself. "She wasn't trained properly. She wasn't ready to drive that vehicle. It just wasn't safe," she said.
Last year, the International Association of Machinists objected to a National Transportation Safety Board report on the death of Northwest Airline worker, Denise Bogucki, who was crushed against the nose of a plane in September 2003. The report essentially blamed Bogucki for her own death because of her "decision to use improper equipment" to push back an airplane from the gate. The union argued that she was using the only equipment Northwest provided to do the job and that she shouldn't have been working alone. Virginia OSHA cited the company and Northwest instituted changes, including requiring two people for pushbacks. The NTSB later agreed to reevaluate the investigation "due to new information." (Also check out the comment left by Bogucki's son.)

The unions want more oversight:
Paul Kempinski, director of ground safety for the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers District 141, said unions have urged government agencies to more rigorously monitor ground operations. OSHA "only comes out when something happens," said Kempinski, who represents baggage handlers at United and Aloha airlines and US Airways. "Something needs to be done sooner. Someone needs to be in charge of oversight."
And ground crews aren't the only ones with problems.

By coincidence, I was wearing my OSHA NOW! t-shirt today, given to me by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) in 2000 after OSHA and the FAA signed an agreement directed the agencies to “establish a procedure for coordinating and supporting enforcement … with respect to the working conditions of employees on aircraft in operation … and for resolving jurisdictional questions." Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, the agreement was never implemented and last year the AFA filed a complaint in District Court against Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and FAA Administrator Marion Blakely for their failure to ensure the health and safety of flight attendants and other employees working in the airline industry. And if you think their jobs are safe and easy, check out their health and safety website.

So, now you know all you never wanted to know about airport workers. They're not all glamorous pilots. So think about all of this again next time the airlines cut staff and ask ground workers to make concessions.