Airport Screeners' Still Exceed Other Workers in Injury Rates

Dec. 13, 2006
The Transportation Security Administration dramatically cut the injury rate for airport screeners in the past year, though it remains among the highest in the nation.

The Transportation Security Administration dramatically cut the injury rate for airport screeners in the past year, though it remains among the highest in the nation.

On-the-job injuries, which have forced screeners to miss hundreds of thousands of workdays, fell to 16 per 100 employees in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, TSA data show. That's down from 29% in 2005 and 36% in 2004 in a trend some screeners attribute to a crackdown on injured workers.

"There's been a phenomenal focus placed on safety," said Earl Morris, TSA general manager for field operations. "The benefits are enormous" because fewer injuries mean more screeners at checkpoints and faster security lines.

The screener injury rate still far exceeds the rest of the federal government and the private sector. Screeners among a workforce of 47,000 are injured more often than workers in all but five of the roughly 600 jobs tracked by the Labor Department.

Morris said screeners have to lift heavy bags, often in awkward positions that cause strains. Injuries add to absenteeism that has forced the TSA to shut security lanes and violate a law requiring checked luggage to go through bomb detectors, according to congressional investigators.

The TSA has installed rollers and bag hoisters to relieve screeners from lifting, brought screeners back to work on light duty and attacked fraud with an inspections office that has prosecuted employees who allegedly falsified injury claims. "That sends a message that it's not something we're going to tolerate," Morris said. He provided no figures on alleged fraud.

The injuries cost taxpayers $58million in fiscal 2006 to cover wages and medical benefits for injured screeners, the TSA said.

Some screeners feel the TSA discourages them from seeking workers' compensation, said Greg Fox of the American Federation of Government Employees, whose numbers include screeners.

Coralin Parker, a screener at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, said the TSA wouldn't let her take four hours off twice a week for physical therapy appointments.

"I feel it's harassment. It upsets the heck out of me," said Parker, 63, who tore a rotator cuff in September when she lifted a heavy carry-on bag at a security checkpoint. She returned to work in October doing sedentary jobs such as checking passengers' boarding passes.

The TSA couldn't comment on Parker's case but said it lets injured screeners attend physical therapy during work hours in accordance with federal law. The TSA says it brings screeners back to work only when they get medical clearance.

"It may be the employee doesn't think they're 100%, but the doctor thinks they are," Morris said.

The TSA hired a company last year that oversees injured workers, whose conditions are reported to agency officials. Instead of being told an injured screener can't work, "we get a paper saying this is what they can and can't do," Morris said.

Cris Soulia, a screener at San Diego International Airport and a union official, said bomb detectors have been moved so screeners don't have to carry luggage 10 feet from the machines to conveyor belts that lead to airplanes. "They have improved some of the ergonomics," Soulia said.

Boston screener AJ Castilla, also a union official, said screeners are shown videos demonstrating proper lifting techniques. "It was great," said Castilla, who's hurt his back three times in his job at Logan International Airport. "I could have used that video in orientation."

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