OSHA, the National Safety Council, and 13 airlines have allied to address ergonomic issues related to baggage handling, reports Michelle Garetson

March 2003

March 2003 Ground Support Magazine coverOSHA Administrator John Henshaw announced in November 2002, that a collaborative working relationship designed to further protect workers in the airline industry was formed when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) signed an Alliance with a group of 13 airlines and the International Air Transport Section (ARTEX) of the National Safety Council (NSC).

OSHA and the airlines have agreed to share best practices and technical knowledge, focusing on ergonomics. Ergonomic issues related to the handling of passenger checked baggage will be addressed by exploring methods of promoting communication, outreach, training, education, and a national dialogue.

"This Alliance provides us a great opportunity to advance a culture of injury and illness prevention among workers in the airline industry," says Henshaw. "By law, employers are responsible for the safety and health of their workers. It is our job to ensure that employers keep their workplaces safe. This Alliance is the beginning of what I hope will be a continuing relationship with the airline industry that is focused on results - worker safety and health."

ARTEX is part of the NSC's Business and Industry Division. ARTEX is composed of NSC member volunteers representing all aspects of the aviation industry. At any one time, the section focuses on developing best practices in four or five different areas, such as fuel cell entries, baggage-handling injuries, over wing fall protection, and severe weather prediction.
NSC President Alan C. McMillan says, "The National Safety Council has long been a participant in the national dialogue on ergonomics issues and is pleased to provide technical support to the Alliance."

Why it's Important
OSHA has identified some of the challenges associated with baggage handling and offers suggestions for preventing injuries through its e-tool program on the organization's website.

When transferring to and from loading conveyors, potential hazards include:

  • Repeated twisting of the torso while lifting the baggage between the cart and the conveyor.
  • Slipping on wet and icy pavement, particularly while handling heavy baggage.
    Possible solutions for twisting of the torso:
  • Park the cart at an angle to minimize twisting when transferring baggage to the loading conveyor.
  • Ensure the use of proper lifting techniques, with emphasis on lifting problems associated with unsure footing.

Possible solutions for handling in variable weather:

  • Keep walking surfaces free of ice and snow.
  • Workers should use footwear which maximizes traction for the conditions present.

"Ergonomics is a big issue for the airline industry, explains Richard Lindsey, Manager of Occupational Safety and Industrial Hygiene with American Airlines. "The airline industry is essentially a manual material handling industry - handling baggage, cargo, mail, and passengers. We're thought of as a transportation industry, but what we do is move things."

According to Lindsey, the airline industry is hiring people with ergonomics expertise as they understand the importance of this issue.

OSHA has identified that there are unique challenges within industries, specifically with the air transport industry - aircraft are designed to fly, not necessarily designed to stack baggage in.

Senior Industrial Hygienist Hillary Schneider is United Airlines' alliance representative and explains that the alliance first met this year in Salt Lake City, Utah where the group looked at the airport operations and learned about the differences in their baggage handling techniques.

"Everybody has their own special techniques and we were looking at the best of what everyone has to offer. We bring what we have to the table, and if there's something better, we'll try to implement that best practice."

Game Plan
The Alliance consists of the following companies: Air Canada, AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, American Trans Air, America West Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Midwest Express Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and U.S. Airways.

Over the next year, OSHA and the participants will review five specific points for improvement.

  1. Review and provide input on ways to improve OSHA's e-tool, which is found on the organization's website.
  2. Conduct a one-day seminar for participating airlines and other interested aviation participants on OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP).
  3. Conduct a one-day seminar with airline and OSHA personnel to provide information and to discuss ergonomic issues, solutions and limitations related to handling passenger checked baggage.
  4. Educate interested parties on and solicit ideas for ergonomic improvement associated with handling of checked baggage during a national safety-related conference and possibly other venues.
  5. Develop a biomechanics-training module for workers who handle checked baggage and make that module available free-of-charge to all airlines.

This agreement will remain in effect for one year from date of signing and will automatically be renewed annually thereafter.

Measuring success
A team of Alliance members will meet at least quarterly to develop and execute an action plan, determine working procedures, and identify the roles and responsibilities of the participants. OSHA will also offer the opportunity for representatives of the Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association and the association of state Consultation Projects to participate in the Alliance.

Other parties the group hopes to incorporate incrementally into discussions include: labor unions, ground handling companies, baggage manufacturers, equipment manufacturers, Customs, the TSA, airports - literally anyone involved with checked baggage handling.

According to Lindsey, OSHA has been extremely proactive in soliciting assistance from the industry as well as helpful in moving the program forward. The alliance is continually reviewing the five initial goals and implementing ideas for improvement. He is also interested in hearing from others in the industry with respect to best practices or ideas to present to the Alliance.

United's Schneider says the team has been working hard to enhance the OSHA e-tool and says that a significant amount of changes has been submitted and will be added to the OSHA website in the near future. Another goal on the front burner for review is that of preparing a presentation regarding OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP).

"Our first year is dedicated to baggage handling," says Schneider. "We believe employee training is very important. Involving our baggage handlers is critical to the success of our ergonomic program. Our employees are out there everyday and know the right way and the wrong way to do their job."

Employees have many ways of submitting ideas, including directly to the safety department or through their union representatives. "Everyone in the alliance is dedicated to the safety and well-being of their employees," says Schneider. "The whole goal of the alliance, to bring together the best practices for employee safety, is really going to benefit everyone in the airline industry."


American Airlines

National Safety Council
1121 Spring Lake Dr.
Itasca, IL 60143-3201
(630) 285-1121

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)
200 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20210
1-800-321-OSHA (6742)