Baggage Handling Best Practices

Sept. 17, 2007
Work related injuries related to baggage handling have reached unprecedented numbers. John Gude from Glidepath discusses how the industry can work to allieveate this problem.

One wouldn’t think of an airport as a hazardous place to work butfor baggage and cargo handlers it is among the most injury-prone occupation in aviation. The airline industry is facing unprecedented work related injuries which cost the aviation industry millions of dollars every year in terms of lost work, rehabilitation costs and law suits.

Let us not forget to mention the personal suffering of the injured individuals. These injuries primarily include the back, arms and shoulders caused from twisting and turning, awkward lifting postures and repetitive lifting of heavy bags.

Work related baggage handling injuries are endemic to the aviation industry. according to the TSA, injuries and costs skyrocket. Records state screener injuries cost the industry $52 million in FY2005 and $58 million in fiscal 2006 which cover wages and medical benefits for injured screeners. The latest TSA information in a May 2007 report indicates the costs could be as high as $66 million with an estimated future liability of worker’s claims to reach approximately $600 million.

Recent figures from the Department of Labor, Federal Injury and Illness reveal 5 percent of TSA’s workforce was injured in the first quarter of 2007 with 2,892 reported cases. Assuming an average cost per claim of $7,300, (the average of 2006 claims) that is already $21 million in the first quarter of the year! If the rate is linear, the industry could experience as much as $84 million in claims not including the long term liability costs.

The baggage processing area has the highest percentage of injuries. The lack of proper ergonomic baggage handling is so widespread it affects ticketing, lobby screening, trace detection (ETD) and loading the aircraft cargo hold. Ergonomic studies have been conducted in airport bag rooms since the early 1990s however, very little has been accomplished to alleviate the injury problem. Statistics prove that it’s getting worse as the number of passengers increases.

What has been done?

There are several organizations and committees dedicated to solving ergonomic problems in the workforce. OSHA, the airlines, and the National Safety Council International Air Transport Section Alliance (since disbanded) collaborated to update e-tool, an ergonomic guideline found on OSHA’s Web site. This Web-based product provides recommendations and best practices to the baggage handling industry in the area of workplace safety and health. Recommendations include body postures, number of repetitions and lifting weight. The Alliance also completed the Ergonomics for Baggage Handlers Training Manual which provides specific guidelines for baggage handlers.

Many airlines now employ full-time ergonomic experts to speak at conferences, promote ergonomic initiatives and investigate equipment manufactures (OEM) to discover the best solutions for their application. The Institute of Industrial Engineers has dedicated the last 10 years conducting the Applied Ergonomics Conference where professionals gather to share their solutions and offer research papers. The aviation industry has been a part of this conference.

The TSA has embarked on its own internal ergonomic program to find cost effective solutions to alleviate injuries. They are reengineering baggage screening areas (ETD) by providing roller conveyors and tables in critical injury-prone areas. These measures must be helping as evidenced by a 55 percent reduction in lost days from work, according to the Web site. The number of lost days due to injury was cut from 45 days to 20.5 days. These benefits were realized through administrative and ergonomic programs and should begin to lower the overall costs of claims. Unfortunately, the first quarter of 2007 shows the costs going in another direction.

The TSA and the airlines are closely monitoring pilot programs that provide ergonomic solutions for baggage and material handling. While the ergonomic focus has been on airline baggage, air cargo is another trouble spot getting attention. A cargo screening pilot was instituted to study the benefits of ergonomically lifting and transporting air cargo materials, using motor driven conveyors, scissor lifts and automated turn tables to convey pallet loads of air cargo materials. Vacuum lifts are being employed to palletize and depalletize heavy loads of carton containers.

What are some solutions?
There are a number of material handling solutions that are being tried with varying degrees of success. The obvious answer is to find ways to not lift the bag. If the bag must be lifted, then a means where the operator can transport the bag without incurring stress on one’s body by turning and twisting, lifting from an overhead position, lifting from an awkward stance, bending down, should be employed.

In the area of ETD rooms, one option is to utilize conveyors to transport the bag to and away from the operator. Conveyor solutions can be problematic since they are expensive and require much real estate to house the infrastructure. These solutions can also create ingress and egress issues that can violate fire regulations and inhibit timely movement within the trace detection area.

Another possible solution is to utilize mechanical means to perform the lift. Vacuum head lifting devices exist that mount overhead and out the way of the operator. Turning and lifting of the torso is still required, but there is no weight involved due to the action of the lift mechanism. Vacuum lifts have flexibility of design since they can be retrofitted into an existing application. These devices show are promising since the baggage is lifted from conveyor to table but most importantly, from the floor to the ETD table. Vacuum lifts will typically lift 90 to 100 pounds without assist. Current studies reveal that a 41 percent reduction in the risk for injury is possible when using this mechanical means to lift the bag. These devices are being evaluated by the TSA in various locations.

Other avenues of approach include:

  • Limiting the weight of each checked bag. The United Kingdom has already limited the maximum weight per bag to 32 kg (70 lbs) and statistics indicate there is a reduction in the number of reported incidents. One study for British Airways revealed a 17 percent reduction in injuries related to heavy bags. OSHA is recommending a 25 kg (55 lbs) weight limit but it has yet to be accepted by the U.S. industry.
  • Bag tags marked ‘heavy’ are helpful in identifying overweight baggage. Studies reveal this is a significant technique in helping baggage handlers identify and then choose appropriate means to lift the bag.
  • Position baggage carts at a 45 degree angle to the unload conveyor to reduce twisting of the torso.
  • Provide higher elevation of the unload belt to minimize bending over.
  • Eliminate double stack unload conveyors unless using a vacuum lift to assist with the lift.
  • Provide adequate training programs regarding skill and technique.

The aviation industry and the TSA clearly have a role to play in reducing the number of injuries to their employees and some progress has been made.

However, there is more to do. Analysis and ergonomic studies have been done over the past 25 years but the industry has been slow to adopt standards for ergonomic lifting in airport bag rooms.

Aside from the human aspect of providing ergonomic solutions, there are compelling business reasons to put in place appropriate steps that will provide a better working environment. Ergonomics is the ‘low hanging fruit’ to reduce costs. Implementing ergonomic initiatives will provide a cost-benefit payback and each user must factor the cost of injuries into the equation to determine that reducing injuries through ergonomics is a good thing.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking, more workers are being hurt and the costs to the aviation industry are mounting. Let’s all band together to arrive at workable and cost effective solutions to minimize the injuries of our fellow workers.