Safety On The Ground

May 1, 2004

For the ground support worker, safety first is the required mantra for a competitive industry writes Jim Romeo

May 2004

It was early evening on September 12, 2003 at the Norfolk International Airport in Norfolk , Virginia. Denise Bogucki was nearing the end of her shift, but had to complete operations for one last takeoff.

Northwest Airlines Flight 1569, bound for Memphis, Tennessee was preparing for takeoff. Denise Bogucki was at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was riding on a pushback tug, which was to push the aircraft away from the gate. Sadly, she was crushed against the nose of the plane while she prepared to push the jet back.

The exact detail of why and how the tragic accident happened is under investigation. Many suspect that the accident could have been prevented had there been another worker involved in the operation. At the same airport, U.S. Airways, Delta, Southwest and Continental told the Virginia Pilot that they use two workers for the same operation.

Why a reduced level of manpower for the operation at Northwest? Competition may be one explanation. There is a growing consensus that pressure from the competitive airline environment has strained the number of ground support employees that would be optimal for ground support operations.

Harry Becker, Training Manager and Health, Safety and Environmental Coordinator for the Signature Flight Support division of Aircraft Services International Group (ASIG) believes that the number of flights operating during a particular window of time has strained the level of manning when multiple operations are underway.

"These peak periods may stretch the work force, and then during other times they may have more than enough employees on staff" says Becker. "As airlines continue to operate more regional jets on their routes these cities tend to be on smaller regional aircraft with more flights operating into hub cities."

Becker adds that filling their labor requirements has become difficult for airlines. "Turn over rates of airline employees are becoming a problem for those airlines using more part-time workers who are less committed and may have less ramp experience as well as lower hourly wages," he says.

Clear and constant communication between ground handlers and pilots is imperative.

It's The Training
One possible solution to improve ground safety is one you've heard of time and time again: training. Ground vehicle training programs currently in place at airports vary from only on-the-job training to comprehensive formal training programs with license requirements. Most airports have a formal ground vehicle-training program. They generally involve a two-tiered level approach to training of drivers who operate on the movement area and those who only drive on the apron areas. "Management has the responsibility to monitor their employees and the rush factor as well as insuring they are properly staffed with qualified employees," says Harry Becker.

Another important element of a formal ground vehicle-training program is recurrent training. "Shift briefings and safety related operational training needs to be continually relayed to all employees," adds Becker of Signature Flight. Recurrent training is necessary to ensure that vehicle operators remain familiar with vehicle procedures and any changes related to ground vehicle operations that occurred in the previous year.

Becker emphasizes the importance of sharing accident knowledge and mishap information with the work force to inform other workers of ramp safety issues.

He advises and advocates for the formation of safety teams. "Safety teams from within the work force can be a big help to identify safety issues and concerns and then addressed to management through safety meetings with minutes taken for corrective actions," says
Becker. "These teams can be the eyes and ears of what is actually happening on the flight line and have a true sense of reality that can help guide the work force to a safer operation. Peer pressure can have a big impact on worker performance and improved safety."

What can happen when an aircraft is taxiing too fast from another area of the ramp.

The Highly Visible Worker
The FAA believes there is another factor that may greatly reduce accidents., the ability to see the worker and the visibility of the worker to see objects and people.

In a 2002 report to Congress, the FAA analyzed OSHA data to determine whether visible clothing may have prevented any of the fatalities.

Between 1985 and August 2000, OSHA had reported nine fatal job-related "struck by" injuries to workers on airport aprons, only two of which occurred after 1995.

Lighting conditions may have been a factor in at least six of the fatal accidents. All accident summary reports that listed the time of the fatal injuries showed the accident occurred during darkness or low-light conditions.

A vehicle backing up-an activity during which an operator's field of vision is limited, killed five of the nine fatally injured workers identified in the OSHA database. For example, in 1998, a ground worker was struck in the back by a fuel truck that was backing up after fueling an airplane. Some explanations believe the accident could have been prevented had the fuel truck had a spotter.

In 1988 a fuel truck struck a wing walker wearing a yellow rain slicker and raising lighted wands to signal vehicular traffic to stop for an aircraft. The weather was rainy and foggy and the accident was caused by poor visibility.

Both the FAA and OSHA databases listed the March 27, 1997 fatality of a wing walker for a major airline who died after being run over by an aircraft he was helping to push back. A pilot's visibility relative to apron workers on the ground is extremely limited, so radio communication is used. The wing walker was killed when he walked in front of the plane's nose gear to retrieve the headset cord used in radio communication with the flight crew. High visibility clothing would probably not have made any difference in this accident.

According to the NTSB, a worker killed on December 8, 1992, was using a 15-foot headset cord, which restricted his ability to stay clear of the nose wheel, tug, and tow bar. The tug operator reported seeing the worker fall in his peripheral vision and being unable to stop the tug before it struck the worker.

None of the OSHA accident reports listed whether the above mentioned fatally injured worker was wearing high visibility clothing, making it difficult to determine the impact such clothing might have had on the accidents. Due to the fact that many companies over the past several years have required or enforced existing company policies requiring that apron workers wear high visibility clothing, some of the fatally injured workers may have been wearing high visibility clothing when struck.

When the FAA surveyed major airlines they found that that 11 airlines used reflective belts and reflective lettering on shirts and jackets; 5 airlines did not have any high visibility clothing requirements. The 7 that did included Airtran, American, Comair, Continental, Delta, Midway, Northwest, Southwest, TWA, United, and US Air.

The visibility issue is often considered the root cause of a wide variety of ground accidents. The majority of these accidents seem to be akin to the type that caused the death of the Norfolk, VA worker.

In a study of a specific major airlines "struck by" reports, the FAA found that 42 injuries in total between 1985 and 2000 had occurred on the ground. Most injuries occurred from tractors and tugs. The percentage of the airlines were as follows: Tractor/Tugs - 22 injuries, Cargo/Jet Veyor - 6 injuries, Van - 5 injuries, Dolly - 3 injuries, Cart - 2 injuries, Truck - 2 injuries and other causes - 2 injuries.

The Well Heeled Safety Management Program
Worker visibility is key in preventing an accident. In order to incorporate visibility equipment and practices into the workers' process, it's important to have a well-heeled safety management program. Becker believes that safety and accident prevention begins and ends with vigilant safety management. Safety management encompasses the down line of accountability from supervisor to training manager to worker.

"Managers need to be held accountable for their workers actions and be a part of their performance evaluations as well," he says. "They need to be observing their workers to see that short cuts are not taken and safety practices are being followed."

Safety management takes discipline. This discipline often takes the form of a process for tracking and documenting what has been covered and addressed and what hasn't. Trainers need to document this training so that there is a record to show all training has been completed.

Says Becker, "Training status reports need to be made available to supervisors so they know who has been trained to do what. This insures that those employees who have not been trained are not operating equipment or performing tasks they are not qualified to do."

Smart safety management is preventive and anticipates problems before the problem occurs. A Virginia Pilot news article describing the death of Bogucki from the tragic accident on that Northwest ramp, quoted Anne Mancini, Bogucki's aunt and a Northwest employee as saying that employees at staff meetings often raised staffing and safety issues. She said Bogucki had expressed concerns to supervisors in a meeting eight days earlier.

If safety isn't first, its consequences can haunt your ground support staff. According to Mancini in that Virginia Pilot article, "I don't care how many times they power wash it, Dennie's blood is still on that ramp."