PETER ROUSMANIERE, an expert on the workers' compensation industry
Let your imagination take flight, if you dare, through an industry with the fourth-highest lost-time injury rate in the nation.
As you check your suitcase at the ticket counter with the airline's customer service agent, who stands for hours and types thousands of keystrokes, watch your luggage glide past a plastic curtain behind which lies some of the riskiest work in the American workforce.
Behind the curtain, the conveyor spits your suitcase into a loud and chaotic sorting room where a baggage handler lifts it onto a steel cart. Some suitcases, particularly those marked "heavy" or "overweight," can weigh more than enough to strain a handler's back.
For the moment, though, your bag is no longer your problem. The baggage handlers are "taking care" of it, first tossing it from the conveyor belt onto a waiting cart before latching the carts together. Dozens of other bags are on the cart, and it's clear the handlers have been at this for hours today.
The driver of the baggage trolley pulls out of the terminal building and onto the tarmac, stopping in front of a loading belt running into the belly of your plane. A handler lifts your luggage onto the conveyor, and up, up, up it goes into the cargo hold, known as "the pit" by baggage handlers.
Inside the pit, another handler, usually a young man, usually squatting or kneeling under just four feet of headroom, reaches for the bags and grabs them before spinning halfway around and dropping the bags into their assigned place in the dark aluminum cavern few passengers ever see.
Baggage handling strikes me as heavy-duty work; not life-threatening by any means, but grueling nevertheless.
Listen to what the baggage handlers themselves say about injury risk. In a recent survey of more than 100 handlers, the task most likely to produce a back injury was pushing and stacking bags in the pit of a narrow-body aircraft, which make up the bulk of today's U.S. commercial airline carriers.
The next most dangerous task, according to the survey, is transferring luggage directly from the cart into the aircraft. Almost as dangerous is pushing and pulling loaded carts across the tarmac.
But right now, none of that is my concern. I'm sitting in row 32 A, the window seat, and I'm staring out over my plane's left wing and beyond, at a jetway pulling up to a parked aircraft.
I feel a slight nudge as the tug pushes my plane away from the gate, and fewer than 10 minutes later the entire cabin shakes as the roar of my plane's engines hurtle us down runway 25-R and into the sky.
A half-hour into the flight, my thoughts are far removed from the baggage handlers 10,000 feet below, a female flight attendant pushes the 250-pound beverage trolley down the aisle, pouring more than 100 cups or coffee, water and soft drinks to passengers on either side.
Attendants working the cabin used to be young, almost without exception. In the past few years, though, I've been struck by how many older, middle-aged attendants are roaming the cabin.
The trend is no accident, as it turns out. Turnover has been relatively low among middle-aged flight attendants, and the industry buzz is that this economic downturn is causing many attendants to put off retirement, swelling the ranks of attendants in their 60s and even 70s.
As my plane climbs through 28,000 feet, my thoughts drift for just a minute to United Airlines' Pat Haley, a 71-year-old flight attendant living in Chesterfield, N.H., the state next door from where I live in Woodstock, Vt.
Haley, whom I first met at a memorial service for her husband more than 10 years ago, starts her work two hours' drive away from home, at Boston's Logan Airport.
Like many flight attendants who entered the industry at the dawn of the commercial jetliner age, it was her passport to see the world. She started with United Airlines in 1962.
She was fired, so she told me, four years later when she married. Though hard to believe now, it was a time when airlines would not hire married flight attendants.
But in the 1980s, thanks to the settlement of a class-action discrimination suit, she came back to the airline, at age 50. Now, with 21 years of continuous work under her belt, her seniority entitles her to the airline's best assignments.
It's a comforting thought. At least there's some justice for Haley. After all, she's kept herself in good shape and structured her work so as to prevent accidents.
She used to be a runner. Now she walks a lot and goes to the gym. Though never subject to the strains of baggage handling, Haley's seen her fair share of industry injuries.
"A lot of people get burned out," she said. "You can be burned out at any age."
As my plane landed and we pulled into the gate, I looked out the window and there was the loading belt, pulling up slowly toward the hold of the plane located directly below and just a few seats behind me.
My thoughts drift once more to the baggage handlers crowding and crouching below, as my bag prepares for its reverse journey from the plane back into the terminal where I would pick it up from baggage claim.
"The order of work is reversed," I think to myself, as the handlers undergo the same degree of bending and hauling I'd witnessed a few hours earlier.
With tens of thousands of domestic and international flights per year in the United States, the risk of injury to baggage handlers is high--often higher than it looks.
August 1, 2010
Copyright 2010© LRP Publications