Handling the Handlers

Health and Safety Handling the Handlers By Richard Rowe March 2001 With one eye on industry outsourcing trends, the Health and Safety Executive in the U.K. is asking airlines to better monitor the health and safety performance of their growing...


As operators know, however, theory and reality are not always closely related, particularly in such a frantic workplace. True, airlines that outsource certain handling operations usually have trained personnel on hand to supervise the operations, both from the turnround and health and safety standpoint. However, problems are inherent as long as a supervisor is also responsible for on-time performance. Commercial pressures often override considerations for health and safety.

"We audit all our handlers at least twice per year with an emphasis on safety, focusing on things like hearing protection, safety boots, hi-visibility clothing, and basic safe handling procedures as per our Airside Ground Operations Manual," said Neale Millett, Network Airside Manager, DHL/EAP.

"Each handler has a copy of this manual and will be expected to follow it when handling our aircraft. We also audit training records to ensure that all of the handling agent’s staff have received suitable training for their job function. We also audit, and hold the agent responsible for, any sub-contracted services. This is covered reasonably well in the IATA SGHA (Standard Ground Handling Agreement) and, in most cases, will insist that such services are included in the contract with the handling agent for that location."

However, he admits, "At the end of the day we must always rely on the integrity of the handling agent to provide not only the necessary training and equipment, but also a suitable awareness to its staff."

In the U.K., DHL has "only two reputable agents working for us," and self-handles elsewhere. "However, if the U.K. HSE initiative is taken up by other European countries, then we will be required to increase our expenditure on both staff and resources to reduce our exposure to possible litigation."

Millett feels that there should either be a requirement for handling agents to be "licensed" by the local aviation/HSE authorities, or that the airport company should take a "police" role to ensure that handling agents provide proof of competency and acceptable safety practice which should then be monitored by that authority. He does not believe that this completely removes an airline’s responsibility, but rather "levels the playing field when looking for a suitable agent at an airport."

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), specifically through its Airside Safety Group, sees its mission as very similar to the HSE. "IATA encourages members to comply with their country’s safety and health legislation," said Graciella Torrellas, Secretary of the Airside Safety Group. "The work performed by the Airside Safety Group, jointly with ATA, ACI and EAGOSH, as published in the Airport Handling Manual (AHM), is the most important contributor to tackle this issue."

IATA’s AHM helps steer service providers and airlines along the same path, and expertise from both sectors is integrated into the Airside Safety Group.

IATA believes that checks and balances are already in place on both sides of the fence. After all, every organization is required to conform to the safety and health legislation of the country they work in, while the implementation of Service Delivery Standards has helped the industry identify and measure the standards and quality of the services being provided.

IATA’s Airport Handling Quality Audit provides guidelines by which air carriers can monitor ground handling performance. As a result of these audits, airlines and service providers can identify and assume accountability for certain issues such as ensuring safety before schedule, non-enforcement of standard operating procedures, inconsistency in ramp training, plus inadequate levels of supervision, poor personnel recruitment, and general lack of safety culture on the ramp.

Service providers also raise several legitimate issues. These include customer performance requirements that influence the manner in which ramp operations are conducted, management expectations when changes occur in the operation, and time pressures that influence the speed of the operation.

Even more fundamental is the actual physical ability of people to perform the work in the times demanded by airline customers. The concern of some service providers over whether or not people can meet those demands is perhaps something else the HSE should explore with the airline community.

In the rush for competitive advantage, is the industry simply asking too much of its people?

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