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.”
However, if there was a point of contention among the GSE managers we heard from it was this: When would it be safer to not wear a seatbelt while operating GSE?
For this answer, we looked a little deeper into the Delta agreement, which does offer guidance on the issue.
Patrick Kapust, deputy director of enforcement for OSHA, pointed out that the Delta agreement clearly states when a worker should be wearing a seatbelt on “covered routes” – any route designated by airport authorities or airlines for traveling to and from aircraft gates, aircraft parking areas or maintenance hangars.
On the other hand, once at a gate or inside a bag room or hangar – in other words, near an aircraft or machinery – ground workers do not have to wear seat belts.
Kapust added that performing a job hazard analysis might be in order to address the situation better when it comes to not wearing a seatbelt and supplied us with some web sites to visit for more information.
“If a worker could get wedged under a piece of equipment,” Kapust says, “that is what needs to be addressed since that is the root cause of the hazard. A worker wearing a seat belt is not the hazard.”
He also told us about one facet of the Delta agreement that may not have been widely reported in the beginning. The Delta agreement only applies to states in which OSHA has jurisdiction. About half of the states in the country essentially enforce their own versions of OSHA. “State plan” states must enforce the federal agency’s regulations as their minimums, but can also choose to enact tougher state regulations.
Kapust had just come back from a meeting of the OSHA State Plan Association, in which Delta reps appeared to discuss the seat belt issue. For its part, Delta wants consistent regulations throughout the country, Kapust adds, since the airline may move GSE around the country and find itself with seat belts where they aren’t required or no seat belts where they are.
A consistent seat belt policy can only mean good things to Kapust.
“Baggage workers should know that they are going home at the end of the day,” he adds. “The accidents that we’ve investigated concerning baggage handlers are preventable with the use of seat belts.”
Job Hazard Analysis
A job hazard analysis focuses on job tasks as a way to indentify and prevent hazards before they occur. A booklet available from OSHA offers step-by-step guidelines to conduct the analysis.
Mary A. Brandenberger, who works in the communications department of OSHA, provided us with a link to this resource and several others, including a collection of safety and health topics for the aviation industry.
Since it’s that much easier to click on links online, take a look at this story once the February issue is posted online at www.aviationpros.com.