Air Transportation

Airport ground worker safety the focus of House subcommittee hearing

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Washington — A closer look at the safety and health of airline ground workers is long overdue, Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) said during a Jan. 15 oversight hearing recently convened by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee.

“I’ve been on the committee of transportation and infrastructure for nearly 20 years,” said Larsen, who chairs the subcommittee, “and I believe today is the first hearing dedicated to issues specifically facing ground workers – the women and men who load baggage, clean cabins, assist passengers in wheelchairs and prepare meals, among other jobs. Without ground workers, commercial air travel would come to a halt.”

Esteban Barrios, a baggage handler at Miami International Airport, and other witnesses during testimony cited having to work in extreme heat without access to water or regular breaks, a lack of training, poor lighting, unsafe equipment, and exposure to bloodborne pathogens as regular on-the-job safety issues.

“They have waited until there have been accidents or great issues with safety for them to start to address issues,” Barrios said of his employer, via an interpreter. “Other problems that continue to exist are contact with materials that are dangerous, not enough safety materials like gloves.”

Donielle Prophete, a ramp and gate agent at Charlotte (NC) Douglas International Airport, discussed the 2019 death of a co-worker: Kendrick Hudson was driving a baggage vehicle when he made an evasive maneuver to avoid a bag that had fallen onto the ground, causing the vehicle to flip. He suffered fatal injuries. Prophete claims insufficient lighting contributed to the incident, preventing the 24-year-old from seeing the bag sooner.

“What we’re asking is for Congress to take responsibility for this workforce,” Marlene Patrick-Cooper, president of Unite Here Local 23 – a labor union that represents airport workers in more than a dozen locations around the country – said during the hearing.

 

Chris Harrison, an aviation law expert representing Airlines for America – a trade association of leading U.S. passenger and cargo carriers formerly known as the Air Transport Association of America – said the nation’s airlines were part of OSHA’s Airline Ground Safety Panel from 2008 to 2018, along with labor unions.

The results, Harrison said, were 15 toolbox talks and fact sheets on best practices for numerous vehicles and pieces of equipment ground workers use, along with five guidance documents addressing topics such as cold and heat illness identification and distracted driving. These documents were distributed to more than 1.6 million airport workers nationwide.

“Safety is, has been and will be the airlines’ No. 1 priority,” Harrison said during the hearing. “That includes passengers, employees and contractors. They take that very seriously.”

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