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 number of contractors. Richard Rowe reports.


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The U.K.’s powerful Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a government agency charged with controlling the risk to people from work activities, is spearheading a drive aimed at encouraging the air transport industry to improve its health and safety record.

According to the HSE, the air transport industry compares poorly with other so-called high-risk occupations. Ramp workers, it says, are more likely to be seriously injured than agricultural workers and are at almost the same risk of minor injuries as those in the mining industry.

With this in mind, the HSE published new guidance in December aimed at improving health and safety considerations specifically during aircraft turnround. The document, "Aircraft Turnround: A guide for airport and aerodrome operators, airlines and service providers on achieving control, co-operation and co-ordination (HSG209)" includes advice on the roles and responsibilities of the companies involved, the selection, control and monitoring of contractors, and the organization of the turnround itself.

The guidance is a key element in an ongoing HSE initiative that has seen the agency hammer home its message at industry conferences, as well as visits to companies by HSE inspectors.

"Whilst the U.K. has an enviable record of aircraft safety, the health and safety of those working around the aircraft is a grave cause for concern," according to Bob Meldrum, Head of the HSE's Docks, Water and Air Transport Unit. "The industry is not able to rely solely on 'hardware' solutions to solve its safety problems and so needs to rely on safe systems of work. Consequently, it is vital that these are both adequate and robust and that management ensures that they are implemented and maintained."

The fact remains that serious accidents during aircraft turnround are all too common. The HSE cites one instance where a baggage truck reversed over a fuel hydrant pit, severing the coupling. Several thousand liters of fuel were spilled, workers and aircraft were doused in fuel, and the operation of the airport was badly affected.

Elsewhere, a ramp worker suffered a broken leg when he was trapped between a reversing cargo loader and a baggage dolly. The loader was routinely used to "shuttle" baggage from dollies to the aircraft. It was not designed for the job and offered poor visibility for the driver. However, as the HSE discovered, this was the only way to get the job done because the operation had not been properly planned. With the congested area at the rear of the aircraft, there was no space to bring the dollies into the right position for the work to be carried out safely.

With this in mind, the guidelines are designed to provide an effective framework encouraging airlines, handling agents, and airport operators to work in partnership to reduce the risks faced by staff.

The agency’s guidance states that companies that employ contractors to undertake all or part of the operation should satisfy themselves that the organizations in question can carry out the turnround safely. The HSE stresses the need for operations to be planned and supervised. The plan should be written down, and the supervisor (either a handling agent or some other appointed person or company) should have sufficient authority to control the activities around the aircraft, says the HSE.

All parties need to cooperate and coordinate their activities during turnround. Each company involved must assess and control the risks its activities pose to others; this includes the airlines, airport operator and the ground handlers.

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?

Editor’s note:

Copies of "Aircraft Turnround … " can be ordered online at www.hsebooks.co.uk or from HSE Books, PO Box 1999, Sudbury, Suffolk, CO10 2WA, U.K.