Airside Ergonomics

Health and Safety

Airside Ergonomics

By Richard Rowe

April 2001

Ground support is one industry where work-related repetitive injuries have taken a terrible toll. GSE Today reports on efforts by one U.S. company to drive down the cost of such injuries.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) 1998 report cites incident rates of nonfatal injuries in air transportation industry as 14 per 100 workers. This incident rate is almost 50 percent higher than that of coal mining and 40 percent higher than in the construction industry. These figures reflect the combined incidents of ground and in-flight injuries and have a quantifiable relationship that can be matched by a dollar figure.

Keep in mind that these statistics merely reflect "reportable" injuries or injuries that were deemed serious enough to be documented. In addition, the 14 per 100 workers figure reflects only documented incidents that met OSHA’s definition and criteria of a nonfatal injury. If all injuries were reported, documented, and compiled, figures would more than likely be greatly inflated.

The incident rate, on the other hand, is lower than actual injuries because it reflects accidents where injuries caused time loss. Many of the unreported injuries that ground personnel encounter include minor cuts, bruises, and/or strains related to repetitive motion. Injuries that are deemed "minor" heal and are forgotten with time. Minor repetitive injuries caused by a specific task go unnoticed--that is, until the pain decreases an individual’s productivity, directly impacting time loss. Several contributing elements play their part in the onset of such injuries such as force, repetition, awkward and static postures, vibration, and cold temperatures.

Work-related repetitive injuries, or Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs), occur where there is a mismatch between the physical requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker. According to OSHA, work-related MSDs are the most prevalent, most expensive, and most preventable types of workplace injuries. They account for more than a third of all occupational injuries and illnesses that are serious enough to result in days away from work.

In the U.S. alone, more than 600,000 employees suffer lost workdays due to MSDs each year. Such injuries end up costing businesses US$15-20 billion in workers' compensation costs, and total direct costs are thought to add up to $60 billion.

OSHA points out that Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is the one form of MSD that results in more days on average away from work than any other workplace injury. The median number of days away from work for CTS is 25 days, as compared to 17 days for fractures, and 20 days for amputations.

Workers with cases of severe injury can face permanent disability that prevents them from returning to their job or handling simple everyday tasks. The act of picking up a child, or even pushing a shopping cart, can become a painful experience.

OSHA’s recent response came in the form of a controversial new ergonomics rule passed by President Clinton just prior to leaving office. The rule required businesses to develop and implement an extensive ergonomics program to eliminate workplace muscular stress. It generated outcry from industry organizations such as the National Air Transportation Association which subsequently lobbied hard for the U.S. Senate to pass a joint resolution to reverse the rule due to the "irrecoverable financial pitfalls that would close many aviation businesses." The rule which took effect on January 16, but which would not have been enforced until October 15, has since been repealed by the new Bush administration (see Editorial Director’s Comments, page three).

This is not to say that NATA likes to see people hurt at work. The lobbying against the new rule stemmed from an appreciation that activities such as ground handling by very definition involve the kind of bending, twisting, and turning that cannot be legislated against. Emphasis should instead be placed by the industry on working hard to minimize the impact of such activities rather than having to fend off what NATA described as "overzealous" rulings from the government.

Politics aside, some ergonomics specialists certainly feel that MSDs are preventable. One such organization is PACTS Inc., a research and development, manufacturing and distribution company with nine years experience providing solutions specific to the air cargo industry. Collaboration with several carriers in developing and testing products has created ergonomic solutions that the company says improve product functionality while reducing costs.

Interestingly for readers of GSE Today, the company’s commitment to research and development of products that reduce MSDs is specific to GSE personnel. Unlike costly ergonomic office products designed for specific tasks, PACTS says that its products are designed so that the operator exerts the least amount of unnecessary strain while performing the same tasks.

"Improving health and safety issues for the ground support industry is quite a fresh outlook," Pete Agtuca, the founder of PACTS, told GSE Today. "Each product has undergone extensive field-testing and can be found in use by airlines throughout the U.S.

"One challenge we encounter is spreading the news that there are safer and more efficient products available to buyers. Ramp personnel recognize the safety and functionality improvements compared to standard equipment."

In working with its customers, PACTS has been able to develop and test products with ergonomic solutions in mind. "Each product stands as a cost-effective way to prevent or reduce MSDs and increase safety while boosting productivity and workplace morale," explains Agtuca.

Successfully tested and implemented products are the company’s Ergo-Wands ™, Ergo-Chocks ™, and Hi-Visibility Chocks. Meanwhile, products currently being tested include Ergo-Clipboards, a Laser Alignment Device, and an "Arctic" Option Chock.

The company’s Ergo-Wands are used for marshalling aircraft or vehicles. Their lightweight and compact design have enticed operators such as FedEx, American Airlines, and Swissport USA to purchase thousands of units to enhance ground crew response to arriving and departing flights. Each unit consists of two collapsible marshalling wands that store in a pouch. Pouches are reflective and are designed with belt loops for attachment.

"Ergo-Wands are 66 percent lighter than standard wands, reducing the MSD risk of awkward and static postures," claims Agtuca. "They emit an equivalent amount of lumens and require less energy by using 2 AA batteries each. Battery replacement costs are approximately $0.60 compared to a standard wand’s D size at $2.80."

Meanwhile, Ergo-Chocks are aircraft and truck chocks designed using triangle and hexagon engineering models in the frame. As Agtuca explains, the FOD-free patent pending design blends aluminum alloys with rubber to create a lightweight chock that is strong and durable. Industrial grade reflective tape meets DOT and ANSI/ISEA 107-1999 reflectivity standards enhance the chock’s nighttime visibility.

"Fatal accidents caused by black rubber chocks being struck by drivers on ramps at night can be better prevented through the use of this ultra-reflective chock," believes Agtuca. "The frequency of minor accidents caused by black chocks is difficult to measure."

The PACTS founder says he personally knows of three minor accidents in the Seattle area that resulted in sprains to the driver’s neck, wrists, or thumbs. PACTS met its design goals for the Ergo-Chock by reducing its weight by 33 percent compared to the all rubber black chocks. Boeing 727 main gear chocks made of all rubber can weigh up to 70 pounds--the same Ergo-Chock weighs 47 pounds. Goals also achieved include reflectivity standards that reduce nighttime collision risks and the Arctic Option currently in the testing phase. "The Arctic Option uses low profile ice cleats that extend enough to grab ice and not damage tires," explains Agtuca.

The company’s patent pending High-Visibility Chocks are made of solid yellow rubber joined by wire rope rated at 1,700 pounds and sheathed by a yellow hose. The yellow hose measures 0.75 inches and can be easily grabbed with gloves, says Agtuca. The chocks can stand vertically for better visibility, while also reducing repetitive bending strain.

Ergowand chocks and clipboards.

"They are designed primarily for use on GSE such as tractors, dollies, carts, and other ramp vehicles," Agtuca explains. "Our design is an improvement from the typical nylon rope used with chocks that untie or deteriorate under harsh ramp conditions."

The importance of good quality chocks has been highlighted by fatal rolling accidents such as the O’Hare International accident reported by the Chicago Tribune on December 7, 2000 and an accident at Seattle Tacoma International reported by the Seattle Times in May last year.

"Both accidents in which the operators were crushed by their GSE could have been prevented had their vehicles been chocked," believes Agtuca.