Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Aviation ground crew safety issues

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Air Transport Association (ATA) are co-sponsoring a symposium about ground crew safety issues. The symposium, which will take place in Orlando on September 6-7, has the catchy title, "From Bolts to Bags - Managing the Human Factors to Ensure Continuing Safety!" You can have a look at the symposium's agenda here on the ATA website.

Rampers and mechanics tell us that they often feel like the ugly step-children of aviation. It is safe to say that when most people think of aviation workers, pilots and flight attendants usually come to mind first. The less-glamorous yet essential role of ground workers in keeping planes flying and ensuring that people and goods get to where they are supposed to go is overlooked too often. So, it's good to know that, for a few days, the FAA and the ATA will be putting the focus on issues specifically related to the safety and well-being of these workers.

An article in today's Washington Post cites some interesting figures about injuries to aviation ground workers:
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.

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.
The article goes on to quote officials from the FAA and several airlines about their concern for worker safety, but also points out that no one agency is responsible for overseeing safety issues in aviation, a fact that sometimes results in virtually no oversight at all.
Workers complain that oversight tends to shift among agencies. After an accident occurs, the government agency that leads the investigation varies depending on the type of incident. Further, no one entity -- not the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the airline association or unions -- keeps comprehensive records of injuries and fatalities among ground workers. The involvement of multiple agencies hinders record-keeping and can keep some cases from getting the attention they need, industry experts say.

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."
We agree with Mr. Kempinski.

18th FAA/ATA International Symposium - Human Factors: Maintenance and Ramp Safety - Air Transport Association
Closer Eye to the Ground - Washington Post*

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