Recommendations for Safe Baggage Handling

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

The fact remains that handlers are still dealing with heavy bags. Injuries can be caused by lifting or pulling a single unexpectedly heavy bag, or by working in the confined space of an aircraft hold. There is no “safe” weight for manual handling and repetitive handling of bags — even at 23 kilos or less — under the time pressure of short turnaround times, can still cause injury. These injuries can result in long-term pain and suffering, and inability to work, with the consequent costs to the worker and his family, the employer, the industry and to society.

The legal situation in the UK is quite clear:

  • There are duties on employers and the self-employed to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of employees and persons not in their employment ( e.g., service providers) who may be affected by the undertaking
  • The Manual Handling Operations Regulations set out the duties on employers to avoid risky manual handling operations where possible, and to reduce remaining risks by automation and use of lifting aids
  • The Management Regulations set out requirements for risk assessment, information for employees on risks, and cooperation and coordination with other employers
  • The Construction Regulations require designers and architects to design for safety and health for those that build, use, maintain and demolish — it’s safer by design

So, legally, the airports, airlines and ground handlers all have duties to control and reduce risks to workers, but there are underlying problems of lack of resources and investment. While there is intense competitive pressure for contracts, corners will be cut and, unless the airlines and airports also accept responsibility for the health and safety of airport workers, there are limits on the amount that ground handlers can do to resolve the problems.

HSE believes that the best way forward is to work in partnership with the industry to find solutions. However, injury numbers show that not enough was being done to reduce the risks, and HSE inspectors have taken enforcement action against handling companies for issues such as lack of belt loaders, and the use of unsuitable flatbed trailers which lead to risks both from manual handling, and from falls from the trailer which can cause serious injury.

Because there was still a lack of consistency in systems of work and understanding what “good practice” actually looks like, HSE agreed to fund a research project on one of the highest risk activities — the manual loading of bags into narrow-bodied aircraft.

We also agreed that the industry would take the findings of this research and, with HSE support, develop industry good-practice guidance. This guidance would provide clarity and consistency for the industry and the regulator, and ensure a level playing field for service providers at all GB airports. The research reports were published in December 2008.

There has been a great deal of research done into baggage handling and our initial work involved a literature review to establish current knowledge and intelligence. The evidence presented in this report, and other studies including previous work by the HSE (Tapley & Riley, 2005 and Riley, 2008) provides a strong case for the task to be redesigned or mechanized to reduce the risk of injury.

The on-site airport project was undertaken with the full support of East Midlands Airport, airlines, ground handlers, worker representatives and equipment manufacturers, with the agreed aim of identifying specific risk factors and assessing the benefits of different systems of work. We were given access to aircraft, and airport workers gave their time and expertise to help us assess equipment and work patterns. The experience of workers is key to this — they are the people who understand the problems, and often find the solutions. We were also very pleased with the cooperation of equipment manufacturers, who gave us access to equipment and information so that we could assess the benefits of new technology.

The study specifically considered systems of work for the manual loading of bags into narrow bodied aircraft — an activity identified as high risk due to operational constraints and aircraft hold design. The research identified a range of possible actions to reduce injuries and ill health. While lessons can be learned from this work, further work is necessary on baggage halls and other aspects of baggage handling.

The main recommendations of the report include:

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