Ground support safety should include footwear that prevents serious foot injuries
It's early morning at an East Coast airport and a cargo plane has just touched down after a 12-hour stretch from Hong Kong. The plane has arrived late, although must still depart at its regularly scheduled time later that day. The compressed schedule will give barely enough time for the already fidgety ground crew to process the massive amount of cargo off and on the plane. Crew members methodically and briskly begin unloading the plane's cargo so they can replenish it with fresh loads for the return trip. Large metal bins filled with cargo are unloaded onto dolly cars positioned below the plane's cargo hatch with military precision. But suddenly, one of the workers bumps into an empty, disconnected dolly car nearby with enough force that the heavy steel T-bar in front of it falls forward, slamming right onto the worker's left Achilles tendon. The injury causes severe pain and bruising, and the worker is off the job for a few days. The worker was wearing a cross-trainer style shoe, yet the shoes were not made of leather, nor were they high enough to prevent the serious blow dealt by the dolly car's massive T-bar.
Wearing good quality, protective footwear isn't just a good idea. A close call from an accident one day may be repeated the next time with a more tragic outcome. This article will discuss why the right kind of footwear can help prevent injuries like the one above, what to look for in your next pair of boots for use on the tarmac, plus some helpful insights from cargo handling experts.
Boot Policy Helps Ensure Foot Safety
Just why the right kind of boots is so critical to work involving the movement of cargo is underscored by the demands of the job. The work environment at Evergreen Aviation Ground Logistics Enterprises Inc., in Portland, OR, for example, is typical of what you would find at most airports. "We're working on hard concrete and asphalt, pushing and pulling on heavy cargo, then on a metal floor inside an aircraft," explains Sal Quitoriano, Evergreen Aviation's operations manager. Cargo weight averages three or four tons per pallet, although larger pallets can be 30 tons. During the long shifts, it's always a race against the clock, so crew members' feet must bear the brunt of the workout which involves crouching, bending and twisting as the crew maneuvers and then pushes cargo onto container pallet loaders. "You can be on the ground one moment, then running up steps into the airplane the next on a roller type floor that has multiple obstacles that can catch your feet," Quitoriano says. "Or a pallet can come down on your feet. So, you have to watch where you put your feet," Quitoriano adds.
For these reasons, Evergreen Aviation enforces a boot policy that, at minimum, requires workers to purchase fully covered leather boots that provide solid ankle support and a comfortable fit.
Quality Boots Adapt To Work Conditions
Whether you've decided to work for an aviation company's cargo operation for a few months or a career, some boot purchasing basics always apply. Look for these key features in your next boot purchase:
- All-leather boot with a good five- to eight-inch upper
- Solid protection at the front of the boot, preferably with an embedded steel or non-metallic toe to protect the boot's "toe box"
- Water-resistance, both in the leather and via a liner to keep feet dry
- Outsoles with superb traction
- Stitchdown construction, whereby the boot's midsole and upper are stitched together with strong, interlocking thread to provide the strongest possible attachment - the result is that your foot rests on a wider and more stable platform, and the boot will have a longer wear life
A boot armed with these features will be able to withstand the gauntlet of changing work conditions you'll surely find at your job, including oil and hydraulic leaks, hot and hard concrete, slippery surfaces, rain, snow, ice and just everyday boot wear and tear due to the constant physical demands of the job.
According to Quitoriano, the added weight and leather construction of a high quality boot is worth its cost and protection. "You can have a five-ton pallet land on your feet and there may be some foot damage. But if you're wearing boots made of hard leather and with a steel or non-metallic toe, you reduce the chances of your feet having a severe injury," says Quintoriano, who speaks from painful personal experience. "I've rolled both ankles on the ramp due to boots which did not have any ankle support," he recalls from his earlier days of ramping.
Durability, Ankle Support Prove Essential
Although Quintoriano said that Evergreen Aviation does not specify a particular brand of boot for his company's boot policy, many of his supervisors and crew have worn the Danner brand, which offers a special boot style for the uniform market. The Danner boots, which feature stitchdown construction to ensure durability, meet Evergreen's requirement for a leather boot that covers the ankle and has a hard sole.
Ground handlers in many instances can be just part-time workers, for whom a new pair of high quality leather boots can be a major expense. Yet, the alternative may well be lower quality boots that have the high upper for ankle protection and support plus a hard rubber heel, but which wear out within just a few months. Nevertheless, Evergreen strictly enforces its boot policy. If workers show up with boots that are not leather, but made with a canvass material, and the boots do not cover the ankle, the workers are immediately sent home. "A steel-toe sneaker is a safety shoe, for example," notes Frank Baker, quality assurance/ quality control manager of Evergreen Eagle, "but it doesn't meet our minimum standards. If this is what they're coming to work wearing, or if they are using duct tape to keep boots held together after extensive deterioration, we send them home." Like his colleague, Sal Quitoriano, Baker has had his own brush with potentially devastating foot damage as a former ground support handler. "I had steel toe boots on one day and a steel container came up on my boot," Baker recalls. "It twisted my foot. I believe the hard leather and steel toe provided me with a level of protection so that instead of having a broken toe, I only had some bad bruising," says Baker, who reported back to work the next day.
Get Feet Measured, Don't Ignore Pain
Dr. Jane Andersen, a podiatrist with Chapel Hill Foot and Ankle Associates, in Chapel Hill, NC, identifies closely with the need for proper footwear in the ground support industry. "We see feet overuse injuries all the time, including heel pain, generally achy feet, and tendonitis," Dr. Andersen says. "It's mostly due to unsupported boots."
The podiatrist offers some foot care and wear tips. First, she recommends that anyone employed as a ground handler should get his or her feet measured, a practice that seems to be fading in our hurried world. "Every brand of boot you buy will be made differently in terms of its size," Dr. Andersen says.
"Err on the side of big. Push down when trying on new boots and make sure there is enough room for your toes in the 'toe box'." At the same time, the toes should not touch the end or sides of the boot, but only the bottom.
Second, look at the quality of the boot, says Dr. Andersen, who notes that the boot's heel counter should be firm. "This helps support your foot and control the motion of your heel," she says.
If your feet hurt, this can be devastating. After all, foot pain is not normal so don't ignore it. Over-the-counter insoles can help, or you may consider wearing orthotics, shoe inserts whose job is to correct an abnormal, or irregular, walking pattern.
Watchdog Group Seeks Tighter Safety
While ground handlers can certainly marshal the care of their feet and selection of boots, the ground handling industry itself needs to be marshaled more tightly when it comes to worker safety. At least, that's the opinion of the Maintenance & Ramp Safety Society (MARSS), based in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. MARSS is trying to flex its muscles in the ground handling industry as a benevolent watchdog over airport ramp operations worldwide. Only six years old and boasting just 200 members, MARSS' plans to help make the industry safer are ambitious. The initial focus of MARSS was on airport maintenance and technical operations, but it eventually incorporated ramp and ground crew safety as part of its mission. If MARSS has its way, it will visit airlines and ground service providers at airports across the globe to help them adopt tougher ground handling safety practices, which would include having ramp workers wear proper footwear. "We've received some positive feedback with some of the awareness we've been building," explains Larry O'Brien, a MARSS director. Continuing, he says, "We have an audit program whereby we assess the safety program and operations for airlines and service providers. We look at accident/injury reports for a certain period of time, as well as an organization's training manuals."
Footwear safety is among the many checklist items of the MARSS audit. As he observes ground crew operations at airports from a distance, O'Brien notes: "If I see a running shoe, I know it's not proper safety footwear." And, again, that holds true even if the running shoe has a steel toe. "Ground handlers are climbing on and off baggage tractors, push-back trucks and belt loaders, and climbing ladders of loaders," O'Brien says. "So, there's the potential for turning ankles. This is why the extra height is helpful in a boot. It's safer." And MARSS approves of the current practice in Canada when bootwear infractions are discovered. "You can be fined if there are foot injuries and you're not wearing steel toe protection as part of proper footwear that gives good support and protection," O'Brien says.
Upon completion of an audit that MARSS conducts with an organization, the team will stay and create an action plan to remedy issues, and be available to clear roadblocks "until we can see the goals met for the organization and MARSS," O'Brien says. Then the organization will be certified. "We're in this for the long haul," O'Brien continues. After all, he adds, "The cost of one injury (whether it involves feet or other parts of the body) can be huge with time lost and medical expense."
Bob Galvin is a Portland, OR, freelance writer who writes on business-to-consumer topics. One of his focal writing topics includes footwear and applications. Bob can be reached at: [email protected].