Night Shift on the Ramp

Feb. 9, 2007

Protecting third shift ramp workers from injury and limiting human factors mistakes.

When passengers arrive at the airport at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. departure you can hear them complaining to each other before they are even out of the car park.

But on the other side of the security fence there is a dedicated group of professionals that have already been working for many hours to make sure their flight makes it from the gate on time.

Airport ramps are busy and dangerous places to work, and when the sun goes down, the stress level increases. The harsh, direct, ramp lighting leaves dark shadows that can hide dangerous situations. Night weather changes can be very dramatic and don’t forget human factors like fatigue.

The lighting is the biggest change that you will notice. Close to the terminals, the ramps are generally very well illuminated, but the connecting vehicle corridors and taxiway intersections can be very dangerous at night. In many cases you will hear an aircraft engine before actually seeing the aircraft sitting in the darkness. Keeping a window open and constantly scanning the area around you will help you see potential dangers and avoid them. I know from personal experience that a 757 can be hidden from view by a door post. Only by leaning forward in my seat was I able to see the aircraft moving towards me.

Pushbacks at night require much more care and attention to safety. Wing walkers with safety vests and illuminated wands must walk through busy vehicle corridors to stop traffic and help guide the tug driver to position the aircraft correctly for engine startups. Drivers must be constantly watching for workers walking across the ramp. Workers must be on constant alert and assist each other in staying out of dangerous situations as the shift advances and fatigue sets in.

Night brings other changes as well. The temperature steadily drops as the evening shift progresses and can drop below the dew point—at which time everything becomes wet, including the workers. In the spring and fall heavy fog can form, closing runways and changing your work schedule dramatically, thunder and lightning storms can clear the ramp of all personnel for hours at a time and even mid-summer, hot, humid nights can be difficult. You need to drink plenty of water and watch for signs of dehydration.

But I am sure that anyone who has worked the ramp in winter will agree that sometimes you just don’t want to be there.

The heavy labor of loading bags can cause workers to sweat and rapidly lose body heat in the cold air. In this kind of environment, workers need to adjust their clothing as needed and eat properly during their shift to stay healthy.

Fatigue can have serious consequences in a job like this, a good shift lead will monitor the team and schedule breaks when possible. Rotating difficult jobs around the team members will make sure that people don’t burn out, and be aware of the team morale—some of the most productive teams are also having the most fun.

Remember that after your shift is finished you still need to prepare for the drive home. Tests have proven that a tired driver can be as dangerous as a drunk driver. There are several techniques you can use to help you stay alert on your drive home. Change the temperature in your car as you drive. Open and close the window, change the radio station, car pool so you can talk to someone. Drinking water and eating a light snack while driving can also keep you alert. If you have had a hard shift and you don’t feel safe to drive then have a nap before you start home. Some companies provide a crew rest area with couches or reclining chairs. Many now provide “Human Factors” training courses to help you understand the dangers of fatigue. You are no good to your company or your family if you get hurt driving home because you fell asleep, so don’t relax until you are safe at home and ready for bed.

The battle against fatigue starts at home. Make one room in your house a dark, quiet sleeping room. Use ear plugs if necessary and don’t drink coffee close to the end of your shift. Try to get to bed as soon as you get home so that you don’t get over tired and don’t drink alcohol, it will disrupt your sleep cycle. Don’t forget that you should be sleeping during the day. If you try to burn the candle at both ends your body won’t let you do it for long and you could be putting yourself and your team at risk.

Night shift can be hard on your body, but like anything in life, it’s going to be what you make it. Night crews usually get closer than day shift crews because you depend on each other to get the job done and stay safe in a more stressful work environment. I have found that I only really get to know my crew when we all face the hardships of night shift together. It helps to build a good strong team and that helps get the job done and reduce the extra stress.

Be proud of the work you do as “Night Crew“ and smile at those passengers you hear in the parking lot complaining about their 7 a.m. flight, because you know that they have no idea what it takes to make that flight leave on time.