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, tow-bars, 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.  

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.

Flight Attendants

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.

From Our Files

  • We represented the wife and children of a ramp agent who died on the job. After litigating some complicated beneficiary issues, we were able to secure the maximum benefits the Workers’ Compensation system affords for both the spouse and children.
  • A ramp agent we represented was initially seen by his employer’s company clinic doctor, and eventually taken off of work due to the heavy work restrictions provided by this doctor.  We were able to agree on a neutral Agreed Medical Examiner, and after deposing the doctor regarding work restrictions, we got the restrictions lifted and the client back to work doing the job he has loved for more than 20 years.
  • Our client was a customer service representative who suffered a repetitive back, neck and carpal tunnel injury after years of lifting heavy baggage.  After multiple surgeries, she was not able to return to her job. She exhausted her Workers’ Compensation benefits and had to apply for Social Security Disability (SSD), but was denied. We successfully appealed her denial and   hired a vocational expert who prepared a detailed report, explaining that due solely to her Workers’ Compensations claim, she was not able to do her job or be re-trained to hold any job in the labor market.   After going to trial, we successfully obtained a maximum 100 percent permanent and total disability award from the judge. 
  • We represented a ramp agent who had prior work injuries to his lower back from his previous job; that case was settled. The “new” employer—an airline—was seeking to lay full blame for our client’s back problems on his previous employer. A Panel Qualified Medical Examiner agreed with that position. We litigated the matter, and succeeded in securing a medical award (paid for by the airline’s carrier) for our client’s back problem.
  • We represented a ramp agent who suffered two separate claims—a specific injury to his right knee and a repetitive injury to his hips. He was in constant pain, requiring daily use of pain medications, which lead to a rise in his blood pressure. We amended his claims to include aggravation of his blood pressure as a secondary consequence, and convinced the defendants to use an Agreed Medical Examiner (AME) to address this issue. The AME found the elevated blood pressure to be a compensable work injury. The applicant now has a medical award to treat his high blood pressure and his hips and knee.

Keep in mind that because Workers’ Compensation is a no-fault system, an injured worker is not suing his or her employer, but rather making a claim for benefits. And, because each claim is different, with many variables involved, results cannot be guaranteed.

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