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Airline Workers: It's Hazardous on the Ground and in the Air

Flying the friendly skies is a thing of the past, what with increased security hassles, flight delays, and hefty baggage charges…. But that's nothing compared to what airline/airport employees have to endure on a regular basis. In fact, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, the airline industry is among the most hazardous. 

For these workers, injuries can happen anywhere—in the terminal, on the plane, on the tarmac, in the air—for any number of reasons, including the following:

Airport workers - ground crew
  • Handling heavy, large or odd-shaped baggage
  • Handling uneven loads
  • Bending and twisting while loading luggage
  • Cleaning/servicing the plane while getting it ready for the next round of passengers
  • Mechanical errors
  • Moving and/or lifting disabled passengers
  • In-flight turbulence
  • Slippery pavements
  • Being struck by a vehicle or piece of equipment
  • Shift Work Disorder

Each job within the industry comes with its own set of risks. The following is a rundown of some of the hazards associated with various positions.

Ramp Agents/Ground Crew

These workers are tasked with loading, unloading and sorting freight and baggage, marshaling aircraft, servicing aircraft, and assisting with aircraft pushback and towing, among other things.

This is a very strenuous job that requires a sound mind and body, particularly when they're on the tarmac amidst moving airplanes and other vehicles. Common injuries among ramp agents and ground crew include:

Ramp-Ground Crew Hurt on the Job
  • • Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), also known as repetitive strain injuries, which affect the muscles, nerves and tendons. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, baggage handlers lift about five to 10 bags a minute, each of which weighs between 32 and 70 pounds. Add that up during an eight-hour shift, and it's clear that this job takes a toll on the back, neck, arms and shoulders. To say nothing of the fact that they are also required to stack and shift heavy baggage, which involves twisting, pushing, pulling and keeling.
  • • MSDs are also common among those crew members who clean the cabins (twisting, turning, reaching) as well as those who assist disabled passengers in and out of wheelchairs, etc., which involves lifting, twisting and carrying.
  • • Ramp accidents are one of the biggest problems in the air transport industry. According to the International Air Transport Association, human error is the main cause of ramp accidents. Such accidents usually happen when workers are struck by moving objects or crushed. There are also slips, trips and falls caused by obstacles on the ramp, such as cables, towbars, fueling hoses or spilt liquids.
  • • Noise exposure from the aircraft, fuel trucks, baggage handling equipment, etc. can lead to hearing loss among ramp agents and ground crew. Hearing protection must be worn at all times but isn't 100 percent effective. Hearing loss can lead to other issues, such as fatigue, depression, stress and sleep problems.  

Keeping Ground Crew Safe on the Job

  • Training and education are imperative. This could encompass information on working in extreme temperatures, best practices for operating ground support equipment and reviewing current safety procedures.
  • Preventive measures should be front and center. This could include something as simple as stretching exercises prior to starting a shift or ensuring that crew have adequate back support in order to help prevent injuries and reduce the impact of an on-the-job injury.
  • Items shift during flight, including the cargo below. Ground crew should approach aircraft with a safety mindset. Proper distance should be maintained to reduce the risk of contusions.
  • Communication is key. It's vital to provide ongoing communication to employees about safety practices and how each person plays a role in injury prevention.

Gate Agents/Gate Crew

The job of a gate agent is a hectic one. Duties include making boarding announcements, assigning seats, handling standby passengers, monitoring jet way doors during boarding and disembarkation and other customer service needs. This fast-paced job that requires a great deal of patience.

Gate Agents
  • • Job-induced stress is one of the most common workplace issues gate agents face as they are on the frontlines of travel disruptions, often dealing with demanding passengers who can be combative physically and psychologically. Such stress can lead to hypertension, diabetes and stroke.

Angry customers are commonplace particularly when flights are delayed or cancelled. This is when the gate agents and gate crew need to put their best customer service skills to work:

  • Remain calm.
  • Don't take any angry interactions personally.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Actively empathize.
  • Try to find a solution.
  • Be honest about what you don't know.

Flight Crew

Although flight attendants' major duties are safety-related, customer service is also a vital component of their job. Work duties vary depending on the length of the flight and the attendant's rotation. Generally, however, flight attendants are subject to a myriad of workplace injuries, including the following:

  • MSDs are common among flight attendants as they often injure their backs, necks and shoulders from lifting or shifting passengers' luggage in the overhead bins. In addition, pushing and pulling beverage and food carts also puts undue strain on muscles and tendons.
  • In-flight turbulence can cause cuts and bruises, herniated discs and even concussions.
  • Shift Work Disorder (SWD) is another common challenge for flight attendants as their schedules change from week to week, and certain flights can require them to stay awake in a way that disrupts the body's circadian rhythm (the body's inner alarm clock). This can lead to a variety of conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems and obesity.
  • Flight attendants are under a great deal of stress due to everything from increased security measures (and threats) to unruly and/or demanding passengers. Such stress on a recurring basis can lead to hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disturbances and more.
  • Workers' Compensation laws are constantly changing, making it is imperative for anyone who is hurt at work to be represented by an experienced, knowledgeable Workers' Compensation attorney.   The goal is to receive the full range of benefits to which you are entitled; being represented by legal counsel is the most effective way to achieve this.

Safety Tips for Flight Crew

Flight attendants face many hazards on the job, including strains caused by helping passengers with luggage, burns from coffee, and falling on wet surfaces. Keeping flight crew safe is imperative, and may include the following:

  • Fall protection. Flight crew often travel across the gateway to the aircraft and through various areas, making for a high risk of falling. Therefore, surfaces should always be dry and stable.  
  • Heat exposure. Because flight attendants are at great risk from burns stemming from hot liquids and ovens during flights, they should always use heat protective gloves while performing such duties.
  • Preventive protection. Flying to foreign countries may introduce uncommon illnesses or interactions with passengers who may be contagious with serious medical conditions. Proper vaccinations must be provided, and proper handwashing protocols must be practiced to help reduce the risk of infection.

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