Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Waiting On The NTSB: What Really Happened To my Daughter?

Some of you old-timers may recall February 2005 when I wrote about the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the death of Denise Bogucki who was crushed against the nose of a plane in September 2003. The NTSB report essentially blamed Bogucki for her own death, stating that she had chosen to use the incorrect equipment to push back an airplane from a gate, causing the accident that pinned her against a plane.

The union objected, saying she had been using the only equipment available, and that she shouldn't have been working alone. Virginia OSHA cited the company, Northwest Airlines, and Northwest -- essentially admitting that there was a problem -- instituted changes, including requiring two people for pushbacks.

Several weeks after the report was released, the NTSB, citing "new information,"decided to take a second look at the Bogucki's death "due to new information."

Now, a year and a half later, Bogucki's mother, Jeanne Earley, is still waiting for that report.
"It's never going to end for me," said Earley, an executive assistant in the airport's administrative office. "But it would be nice to have this part of it over with and settled once and for all."

It doesn't help that a September issue of a Northwest newsletter referred to two recent accidents that resulted in "potentially life-threatening injuries" while doing the same job Bogucki was doing when she was killed.

Safety board spokesman Keith Holloway said last week that the investigation of Bogucki's death would be complete "before the end of the year, if not sooner." He added that the agency is not investigating the recent accidents.

Earley's heard it all before. About this time last year, the agency said it would finish by the end of 2005.

"I don't know if they're afraid to address it because of big business," she said. "We're just the little guys, and they're dragging her through the mud again."
The union is upset too
"It's like there's no value to human life," said Bob Bennek, safety and health director of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Air Transport District 143, which includes Norfolk.

"You would think a fatality would get some type of resolution sooner than this," Bennek said. "The family deserves to have a resolution."
As for the other accidents where ground crew employees were injured, Airline spokesman Roman Blahoski says they weren't related. And although Northwest made changes after Bogucki's death, they are contesting the OSHA citation.
"Our investigation showed it to be an accident and not the result of a violation of OSHA standards," Blahoski said.

The two recent accidents mentioned in the Northwest newsletter also occurred "during the push-back of an aircraft." The newsletter said two employees "suffered injuries, one of which was serious."

Blahoski said the accidents, which occurred over the past few months, were different from Bogucki's because they injured ground crew members, not the driver of the push-back tug.

He said an internal investigation concluded that proper procedure was not followed in one case and that the other is still under review. (emphasis added)
Of course, experts who investigate the root causes of "accidents" generally will ask "why" procedures weren't followed and usually find that there are understandable reasons. (For example, understaffing, improper equipment, or the job just can't get done by following the rules.) And numerous "accidents," even if they appear "unrelated," generally mean that there's something seriously wrong with the management safety systems in the workplace.
Bennek, the machinists union's health and safety director, would like to see the safety board issue recommendations for making push-backs safer, including specifying push-back tractor designs, tow bar lengths and inspections criteria.

"They could make some findings that could forever change the industry," he said.
Meanwhile, Bogucki's mother waits:
Jeanne Earley checks a federal investigators' Web site daily, hoping for closure three years after her daughter was killed while working at the airport.

Every day, she longs to see that the inquiry has ended and to know, finally, what really happened.

Every day, she is disappointed.