Delta Air Lines is nearly a year into a two-year agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that has already seen the airline install seat belts on some 6,000 pieces of GSE at 90 airports and train about 16,000 ramp workers to wear them.
“We currently have 100 percent of our tugs, tractors, belt loaders and bobtail trucks covered by the agreement retrofitted with seat belts,” says airline spokesman Michael Thomas. Although the OSHA deal applies only to domestic airports, Delta also is installing seat belts in GSE used at international airports.
"Maintaining the safety and security of our employees is a priority for Delta regardless of their work location," Thomas adds. About a third of the overseas equipment currently has selt belts and Delta plans to have the installations completed on all GSE by March.
In the year ahead, the airline will hire independent auditors to verify that seat belt training programs continue and that employees are belted in.
Thomas agreed that this did represent a significant cultural change for ramp workers.
“I imagine many of our below-wing workers had operated without seat belts for a number of years,” he says. "Since using seat belts is a bit of a cultural change, that's another reason we thought it was prudent to extend the policy across the company — both domestically and internationally — and reiterate the importance of safety-conscious practices while on the job."
Thomas added many Delta ramp team leaders “took it upon themselves” to promote seat belt use. Per the agreement, the airline conducted its own random spot checks over the past few months. What’s more, about 350 employees submitted proposals for a new promotional slogan to promote the new rules. “Circle Yourself In Safety” can be found on posters and stickers at Delta stations around the country.
“We saw improvements in seatbelt use month to month in our first year,” Thomas says.
Delta agreed to the deal with OSHA following the August 2010 death of a baggage tractor driver who was not wearing a seatbelt and was ejected from his vehicle.
After the agreement made the news, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the home town paper for the airline, had more details about a memo Delta sent to employees regarding the agreement.
The memo said many of the airline’s vehicles do not have seat belts. While that might not be a surprise to the GSE industry, the memo went on to say that Delta averaged 14 such ejections a year, with half of these accidents resulting in “serious employee injury.”
Although the formal deal may have only applied to one airline, OSHA put all U.S. airlines on notice that they should follow Delta’s lead.
“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has become aware of fatalities involving airline baggage handling vehicles,” wrote OSHA’s top official Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor, in a “Dear Airline” letter sent out after the Delta deal was finalized.
In the letter, Michaels reiterated two regulations that already require the use of seat belts in GSE and directed the airlines to “reduce or eliminate” injuries and fatalities suffered by baggage workers.
“In order to accomplish this goal,” Michaels concluded, "we call on you to ensure that your company evaluates its seatbelt program and, if necessary, takes the actions mentioned above as soon as possible.”
There was certainly a lot of buzz about this issue during a GSE convention held last September in Las Vegas. Most airline GSE managers we spoke to at the show did say that seat belts were in the works for their vehicles.
“The safety of airline employees remains our top priority,” says Katie Connell, managing director, airline industry public relations and communications for Airlines for America. “Our member airlines and other ground service providers are proactively implementing plans to install seat belts on their ground support equipment, as well as enacting policies to enforce seat belt usage among employees with Delta’s agreement serving as a model.”
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