Winter on the Ramp: Best Practices and Seasonal Tips

Rounding out the end of the year, winter is a top concern for ramp personnel in the northern climates, although snow and ice do threaten those as far south as Texas in the US. Here's what some GSE departments are doing, along with some suggestions for future winters, as well as some personal safety tips for ramp personnel.

Winter GSE
Chances are you've already spent a great deal of time checking your GSE winter necessities, making sure fluids, batteries and instruments are working properly, much like Grant Greenwald, maintenance director for Midwest Airlines in Milwaukee, WI. "Through the summer months we go through our deicers and get them ready, giving them a full inspection and repairing anything needed," says Greenwald. His department also "winterizes" tugs and pushbacks, "November 1 through April 1 the doors and windows go back on," he says. Cords for the engine block heaters go out, along with stations where the vehicles can get plugged in and lavatory trucks, water trucks and any GSE that carries water in the winter gets a full inspection of its heating apparatus and the technique for mixing glycol for lavatory trucks is reviewed. For training, however, Greenwald likes to wait until the temperature starts to drop. When it's 80 degrees out, it's pretty hard to talk about plugging in the equipment, heaters, etc," he says. Instead, when the temperature is 40 or 50 and winter is well on its way, the ramp personnel are more likely to remember winter procedures, such as threading the engine heater cord through the door handle before plugging it into the wall so someone doesn't drive away accidentally leaving the 25 foot extension cord to drag underneath the vehicle across the ramp.

Even down in Houston, they make sure the equipment is ready for winter. Keith Rains, maintenance manager for ground handler Integrated Airlines Services Inc. (IAS) says, "our fluids are checked, including anti-freeze and the like when we do our PMIs ?year round." There's not much of a winter in Houston, but deicers that have been out of service since spring get a complete, thorough check and during the winter months if ice accumulation is expected, Rains has his personnel cover equipment, such as a loader, with a tarp. Some equipment is even parked inside, but the rest have winterization kits ? block heaters with an AC plug.

"During our worst winter operations, like Thanksgiving till the first of the year, our equipment gets used so often that they don't ever have time to get cold," says Rains with a chuckle.

Some Best Practices
Greenwald has a winter operations meeting during the late summer months to discuss the previous year's processes and decide if anything has to be reviewed or changed for the upcoming winter. "We talk about topics that happened last year that we want to try an avoid this year," says Greenwald. Then the ramp trainers can get information together and get ramp personnel up to speed before winter hits. Training is important in all climates, says Alan Davis, Manager of Safety and Training for IAS. "Winter is different at every station, and not necessarily "cold." All stations should train for their particular winter conditions, even if they don't include snow and ice - but especially if they do!"

Another best practice is to post safety reminders. Davis posts "safety bulletins" reminding personnel about surface conditions for winter pushback operations or watching for ice and snow as they go about their jobs, especially if they are climbing metal ladders or using equipment like loaders; Greenwald reminds staff how slippery glycol on the ground can get under cold conditions.

"Keeping safety issues, such as winter conditions, constantly before the staff is a must," Davis says. "Every pre-op briefing should have a safety component that alsoincludes any weather hazards that might be appropriate for the day or operation, and every post-op should do so as well."

Other than the GSE, winter means "it's time to take our winter clothes out of storage and get out our boots" says Greenwald from personal experience.

Any outdoor enthusiast knows that clothing makes all the different when fighting old man winter, so dress in layers which allows warm air to be trapped between clothes and lets you adjust to different activity levels. When a plane comes in you can remove your sweatshirt or vest without exposing yourself to serious cold, unlike if you only wear a bulky coat and a T-shirt. What your clothes are made out of is also important. Cotton absorbs moisture and holds it near you, meaning if you sweat you will stay cold and wet all day. Instead try a combination of fabrics starting with a base layer of polypropylene ? a material that wicks away perspiration from your body and is warm, then add mid-layers of fleece (PET) or wool since these also wick out moisture and keep you warm. Wool is especially good in cold weather since it insulates even when it is wet. The outer most layer should be waterproof, but breathable ? many safety apparel companies offer high visibility outer wear that can help you keep out winter and be more visible in gray skies and snow flurries, such as Professional Workwear's ANSI-107 class 3 long coats or GORE-TEX jackets. These same ideas should also apply to your feet, try buying socks from a hunting or outdoor recreation store ? they might cost more than white cotton, but they are more likely to keep you from getting cold feet.

Many gloves are available with breathable, warm and flexible fabrics just for working in cold weather, specifically a company called Gorgonz offers a number of unique winter gloves with the Exhales Heating System?, which allows you to keep your hand warm by breathing into the valve on the back of the glove, the warm air travels through an air chamber stitched throughout the glove. A filter wicks away moisture from your breath and an antimicrobial agent keeps the glove germ free.

Human Factors
Don't forget about human factors when it's cold. Various psychological research finds that people exposed to cold temperatures are easily distracted and not as alert, performing poorly on complex tasks especially involving fine motor skills (hands). All types of errors increase. In a paper on the impact of cold on military personnel by Richard G. Hoffman Ph.D. (Human Psychological Performance in Cold Environments), the effects of cold are described as similar to the effects of a general anesthetic. Consciousness and alertness are slowly impaired. Voluntary movements are affected. Touching a hand to your nose, under normal conditions, takes about one second. It may take a person closer to 15 to 30 seconds as his or her body temperature drops severely.

An ever present danger in the cold is frost bite and hypothermia, so stay warm and watch fellow workers for signs of these. Life-threatening hypothermia is a 3.6-degree drop in body temperature and can happen to anyone. The person will have numb extremities, seem confused, stumble, be irritable, appear tired, look bluish or whitish in color, have problems speaking clearly and other behaviors that deviate from that person's norm. If you recognize these symptoms get the person to a warm environment, remove any wet clothing and try taking the person's temperature. If it's very low, call 911, wrap the person in blankets and give the victim warm fluids, warm sugar water would be best and avoid caffeine as it is a diuretic/stimulant.

More things to know

  • Avoid getting avgas, Jet A and similar products on your bare skin as these increase heat loss from the body
  • Keep the core of your body the warmest (vests are a great winter mid-layer and pile on the long underwear)
  • Your body is using energy to keep you warm; stock up on healthy, high calorie foods (pastas, stews, nuts, cheeses, etc.)
  • Cold affects people with poor physical health the worst (poor diet, blood flow problems, old age, etc.)
  • Some medications increase sensitivity to the cold (check with your pharmacist)
  • Take frequent breaks in a warm area
  • Drink plenty of hot (non-caffeinated) beverages; stay hydrated