BY PETER ROUSMANIERE, an expert on the workers' compensation industry. CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®, contributed to this story.
Not all airlines are equal, as any passenger knows. Some airline companies lose baggage more frequently than other airlines. Still other airline companies have a better reputation for on-time departures and arrivals than their competitors.
But what of baggage handlers--those souls who spend much of their days lugging heavy bags on and off conveyor belts, and hauling baggage from terminal buildings to airplanes and back again?
Baggage handlers are the workers we always see from the plane or the terminal lounge, but never talk to. The handlers are the ones out on the tarmac in 100-degree heat and in temperatures 10 below zero.
It's the baggage handlers who get blamed for not delivering the few bags that never make it to their final destination. Those same baggage handlers never get thanked for delivering the 99 percent of the bags that appear day after day on the conveyor belt.
When's the last time an airline passenger wrote his or her airline's baggage handler a thank-you note? Or how about a get-well card? For these baggage handlers do get injured, and injured frequently at that.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the U.S. Dept. of Labor's agency responsible for keeping track of injuries to workers like baggage handlers, know how strenuous handling baggage can be.
Only municipal fire departments, foundries, and public nursing homes have higher injury rates than airport workers, according to the latest OSHA data.
Hauling luggage and crouching into dark cargo holds of narrow-bodied jets is backbreaking work. But some airports and airlines are apparently safer for workers than others.
Take American Airlines, for example. The legacy carrier, one of the largest in the world, employs scores of baggage handlers in a number of U.S. airports.
At Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX, according to 2007 OSHA data, there were 8.4 injuries per 100 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees, and 3.4 lost-time injuries per 100 FTE employees. In all, 41 percent of all injuries sustained by American Airlines workers at LAX resulted in lost time.
At Philadelphia International Airport, more than 2,400 miles away from L.A., American Airlines workers recorded 26.7 injuries per 100 FTE employee, and 20.2 lost-time injuries per 100 FTE employee.
As many as 76 percent of all baggage handler injuries at Philadelphia International resulted in lost time, according to 2007 OSHA data, which covers the 2007, the latest calendar year for which the OSHA data is available.
Among the data sample of 26 airports out of which American Airlines operates, workers averaged a total of 10.1 lost-time injuries per 100 FTE employee over the course of a 12-month period in 2006, with 67 percent of the injuries resulting in lost time.
How is it possible that the number of worker injuries per 100 FTE for the same airline, American Airlines, in Philadelphia is nearly seven times that of AA workers at bustling LAX?
How is it that 76 percent of all injuries sustained by American Airlines workers at Philadelphia International result in lost time, a rate nearly twice that of American Airlines workers at Los Angeles International, where only 41 percent of injuries sustained by the airline's workers resulted in lost time?
The airline industry's sometimes-rocky relationship with labor, all too well documented in the media, may play a part in the varying rates. Dan Smith, a Teamsters representative to the airline industry, blames lower staffing levels at some airports for much of the high injury rate among baggage handlers.
Other experts noted that the variance in lost-time injury rates was due to differing levels of labor-management harmony at individual airports around the country.
"When labor perceives management as being focused only on the dollar and not on the welfare of the workers, it may not buy into safety procedures," said Dennis Downing, president of Future Industrial Technologies, an injury prevention-training firm that has trained baggage handlers at 50 airports nationwide.
United Airlines, another of the nation's large legacy carriers, scrutinizes its injury logs for patterns among its airport worksites, expecting that common factors are behind most injuries.
The airline, with 48,000 employees, monitors workers who incur injuries repeatedly and is increasing its use of modified duty, said John Smolk, workers' compensation manager for United Airlines.
At Chicago's O'Hare, a major hub for United Airlines, the airline registered 15.6 injuries per 100 FTE workers. The airline reported 9.4 lost-time injuries per 100 FTEs, and 60 percent of all injuries there resulted in lost time.
United Airlines' O'Hare numbers provide a contrast with its data coming out of Omaha, Neb., just 375 miles and two states away. In Omaha, United Airlines registered 16.9 injuries per 100 FTE workers, and only 1.7 lost-time injuries per 100 FTE. Only 10 percent of all injuries in Omaha resulted in lost time, according to the OSHA data.
Among the sample of 22 airports out of which United Airlines operates and reports to OSHA, its workers averaged a total of 3.6 lost-time injuries per 100 FTE over the course of 2007, with 30 percent of the injuries resulting in lost time.
Among the five major airlines for which good-sized samples were available in the 2007 report, United Airlines had the lowest annual lost time injury rate of 3.6 per hundred workers, according to the OSHA data.
Southwest had the highest lost-time injury rate of 16, as a relatively high percentage of the injuries sustained by its workers resulted in time away from the job. The airline did not respond to inquiries for comment.
Southwest is one of 13 airlines that signed an ergonomics alliance with OSHA in 2002 to share best practices and technical ergonomics knowledge to protect workers handling passenger baggage.
United Airlines and American Airlines also belong to the alliance, which does not have an enforcement clause in the agreement.
Smolk, at a recent professional gathering, noted that United had implemented a plan in 2008 to cut the injury rate by 40 percent by 2012. Over the first 18 months of the campaign, United Airlines succeeded in trimming its injury rate by as much as 18 percent. Yet, Smolk admitted, United Airlines is "struggling with keeping down the severity of injuries."
Smolk said that the average tenure of the airline's ground staff is 25 years, suggestive of an aging workforce. Older workers are more prone to injuries and require longer recovery periods.
United Airlines' most difficult challenge, said Smolk, is to change a management culture that tolerated relatively high injury rates in the past. Changing the culture is tough, he said, as it takes upward of two to five years of organizational change but location leaders turn over about every 18 months.
Peter Deziel, vice president of occupational and physical therapy at Concentra, an occupational health and wellness firm, also said individual bags are getting heavier as passengers bring fewer but heavier items to avoid luggage charges.
With some individual pieces of luggage weighing more than 60 pounds, ticket agents tagging the heaviest bags with warning labels have helped handlers reduce the number of injuries, Deziel said.
Baggage handlers would also like airlines to introduce mechanical lifts to help stack bags, Deziel said.
Downing said he recommends baggage handlers conduct warm-up exercises for five to six minutes at the start of every shift to stretch the muscles. More safety tips for baggage handlers are available on OSHA's website.
August 1, 2010
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