Whether their airplanes carry passengers bound for destinations around the globe or boxes of cargo sent across domestic and international lines, aviation companies now operate in a crowded, busy, and fast-paced environment. For their employees, this means job security and new opportunities, but it also means high expectations for productivity and strenuous, physically demanding work that often contributes to or directly causes injuries.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) continue to occur at growing rates across all industries, and that trend hasn’t left the aviation business unscathed. These injuries cost employers billions of dollars in workers’ compensation claims, treatment, and lost productivity each year, and the uniquely stressful working conditions of passenger and freight aviation put employees at heightened risk for injuries, chronic pain, and fatigue, all of which can be damaging to a company’s bottom line. So what’s behind these injuries to aviation workers, and what steps can airlines and shipping companies take to keep their employees safe?
What Are the Causes of Injuries Suffered by Aviation Workers?
Between all the different types of work done by aviation employees—aircraft repair and refueling, baggage handling, crewing flights, managing customers and foot traffic at airports—there are a range of factors that play into the frequency of injuries among workers in the industry. For workers on the tarmac or in air freight facilities, the risks derive both from the nature of the work and the sometimes harsh conditions of the environment. For those in more administrative or customer-facing roles, ergonomics and workstation design can contribute to injuries and other long-term afflictions like chronic pain or fatigue.
On the more manual side, the work can be extremely strenuous, as employees are tasked with lifting heavy baggage or moving bulky equipment, often in confined spaces that force workers to use awkward postures and lifting techniques. Back, neck, and shoulder injuries are extremely common among these workers, as these areas are prone to overexertion. Back injuries alone account for between $40,000 and $80,000 in costs per case, while MSDs in general cost employers some $45 billion including both direct and indirect factors. Aviation workers face especially high risk for these injury types.
Injuries Among Different Worker Types
Airlines and freight carriers have several different roles that require proactive solutions for preventing injuries.
• Freight Workers: The folks who operate shipping and cargo lines are essential to the modern economy, but the nature of their work makes them prone to injury. Workers on the ground moving freight on and off airplanes and around shipping facilities are required to push, pull, load, and perform other strenuous motions, putting them at risk for chronic pain and acute musculoskeletal injuries. Fatigue can be especially dangerous for freight workers, as they operate forklifts and other equipment that can cause serious injuries.
• Baggage handlers: Often facing the highest risk of all workers in the aviation industry, baggage handlers carry heavy luggage for up to 8-9 hours per day, often in narrow-body aircraft with small, awkward cargo holds. Workers reach and lift while their backs are bent due to the awkward spaces, and their cargo isn’t lightweight—the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that baggage handlers lift 5-10 bags per minute, each of which weighs between 35-70 pounds on average. Between stacking bags, reaching overhead, twisting to pass luggage, and dealing with the risk of falling baggage, these crews are constantly at risk for MSDs.
• Flight attendants and gate agents: As the public face of their airlines, flight attendants and gate crews are responsible for assisting passengers during boarding and disembarking, as well as standing behind desks for long periods. Stress injuries are the most common among these workers, since they deal with difficult passengers and long trips through the air several times each day. They also handle carry-on baggage through jetways and aircraft, lifting overhead into storage bins and bending to access bags and stored equipment during flights. Chronic fatigue is a common issue, and poor biomechanical technique can cause MSDs and similar afflictions.
• Ground crews: Responsible for refueling and restocking aircraft along with directing traffic on the tarmac, ground crews are also at considerable risk for injuries. Falling bags and cargo can cause harm to workers, while the constant movement and exertion of their roles requires a great deal of stamina. Fatigue appears regularly among these employees, especially considering many are required to work overnight shifts that disrupt circadian rhythms. They also face difficult work conditions on a daily basis.
• Aircraft mechanics: The people we trust to maintain our aircraft, both passenger and freight, perform difficult work defined entirely by the structural confines of the aircraft. Much of the work is done underneath the fuselage or wings, requiring workers to reach overhead for long periods of time, while other maintenance must be done in the cramped spaces inside the airplane. Both pose significant injury risks, especially for costly upper extremity and neck afflictions in the musculoskeletal disorder category, while the parts and equipment used to repair airplanes can also be dangerous.
Environmental, Physiological, and Mental Stress Factors
Regardless of their role, aviation employees face stressors from all facets of the job. The work environment poses several risks factors by itself; high or low temperatures, busy runways, and the time or productivity pressures from the fast pace of aviation are all significant considerations for employers looking to keep their workers safe. Those factors alone can contribute to chronic fatigue just from the stress of the job, much less the physical hazards that can cause injuries.
Flight attendants and ground crews also work long, difficult shifts with few breaks, and since air travel and freight is a 24-hour business in today’s world, consecutive overnight shifts are common.
Between heavy lifting, twisting, carrying, bending in cramped spaces, and working around the structure of an aircraft, the physiological risks faced by aviation employees are considerable. Falling bags injure workers regularly since luggage shifts during flight, while working around hot equipment and raised aircraft leads to burns, overexertion—even amputated digits, broken bones, and back injuries that can require a lifetime of care. Worse, the pavement at airports is often made slippery by rain, snow, and ice, and slipping injuries are all too common.
Strategies for Keeping Aviation Workers Safe
Since the risk factors to aviation employees come from so many disparate elements of the work—the environment, the nature of the exertion required, the hours and interactions with customers—airlines and carriers must look to holistic, wide-angle solutions for their injury and fatigue problems. With buy-in from management and engagement with the employees themselves, companies can proactively address risk rather than paying for it after the fact through these strategies:
• Ergonomic assessments: Determining the physiological causes of injuries is the first step in creating an effective safety program. An on-site ergonomics specialist can evaluate every facet of your operations, from ground crew to the cockpit, to identify risk factors and potential hazards and provide recommendations for change. Ergonomic flaws lead to fatigue, chronic pain, and MSD-related injuries, and a thorough review can prevent significant organizational costs.
• Biomechanics and technique training: Usually offering quick return on investment and reliable improvements in worker safety, enhanced training that tackles the biomechanical origins of the most common injuries is essential for aviation companies. E-learning software is a powerful tool that helps employees learn best practices and techniques for safe lifting, bending, and carrying, while on-site observation and coaching from a certified specialist will identify the root behaviors that lead to overexertion injuries over time.
• Proactive fatigue management: Fatigue is one of the most persistent challenges faced by workers across all industries, requiring holistic solutions that help workers understand how their habits contribute to dangerous fatigue. Data analysis can determine the most fatigue-prone workers and highlight times during shifts when fatigue is likely to occur. Wearable devices and pre-shift testing can also establish an employee’s alertness levels before they begin a shift so that management is aware of trouble spots.
• On-site therapies: Chronic pain is a major burden for workers and a costly issue for employers in the aviation field and beyond. Simple half-hour hands-on treatments can target the causes of pain and alleviate both immediate and long-term symptoms. This dramatically shrinks the likelihood of a worker filling a costly claim while reducing the need for prescription medication.
Ultimately, keeping aviation employees pain- and injury-free—be they ground or air crew, freight workers, or gate agents—requires investment in proactive solutions that address the worker’s body, behavior, and environment. By adopting ergonomic principles and setting high standards for biomechanics training, you can create a culture of that will encourage workers to stay engaged with their own wellness and safety, boosting productivity and cutting the costly injuries that hinder productivity and company performance.