Recommendations for Safe Baggage Handling

Recently published reports revealed suggested methods for the manual loading of bags into narrow-bodied aircraft.


By Chris Barringer, head of transportation section, Health & Safety Executive

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) — back injuries, sprains and strains — among workers have long been identified as a serious problem, and considerable improvements have been made in many industries. In Great Britain the Manual Handling Operations Regulations first came into force in 1993, implementing a European Directive.

While considerable improvements in managing MSDs have been achieved in some industries, HSE identified Air Transport as one of the highest risk industries for MSDs, with more than 51 percent of injuries at airports in 2001-02 caused by handling — that was more than 800 injuries. The main causes of these injuries were manual handling of baggage and cargo handling, with significant injuries also caused during the assistance of disabled passengers, either by use of inappropriate methods of lifting and moving disabled people, or in the loading/unloading of heavy equipment such as powered wheelchairs.

Many of the problems result from the design of airports and aircraft, and are not easily solved — for instance, cramped baggage halls and aircraft holds. Other factors include the weight of the load, rate of working and time pressures during turnaround, use of appropriate equipment and lifting aids, and good maintenance of equipment. We know we can’t change some of these things overnight, but the message is clear — the level of injuries to ground handlers is unacceptable, and we must start to reduce risks now. If we don’t act, the same risks will still be there in 10 years time, and these are costs the industry cannot afford.

One of the biggest problems is lack of investment in new equipment and technology, such as belt loaders and in-hold extending belt loaders and mechanized systems for handling bags in the baggage halls. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency for risks to be “contracted out” by airlines, and airports do not always consider the health and safety of workers when designing and building facilities. It is the ground handlers who bear these risks — but the whole industry ultimately pays the price.

In baggage handling it is the manual loading/unloading of bags both in the baggage halls and on the ramp where most injuries occur. HSE started to work with the industry through the Revitalising Health and Safety in Air Transport (RHSAT) initiative, and achieved some success in improving health and safety standards.

Bag weights were identified as a factor which could most easily be addressed, and in 2004, following a successful HSE/industry/trade union campaign to introduce the IATA-recommended 32-kilo bag weight limit, there was a measurable reduction in injuries. Unfortunately, this was not maintained. Provisional HSE accident figures for 2007-08 show that there were still more than 800 airport accidents caused by handling.

Although bag weights are still an issue, there has been a trend in recent years for airlines to impose lower baggage allowances and maximum bag weights. This has been aimed mainly at speeding up boarding and turnaround and to reduce aircraft weight and fuel costs, but also has benefits for handlers. IATA now recommends a 23-kilo bag weight limit, which has been adopted by many airlines. There are also recommendations for “heavy bag” labeling, and special arrangements for heavy or out-of-gauge baggage.

We fully support short-term solutions to reduce risks, but we also believe that the industry needs to look to the future to find long-term solutions to some of these problems. Lighter bags may help — but increased rate of handling can cause problems. Solutions will only be found if all parties — the airport operators, airlines and handlers — work together.

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