By KEITH L. ALEXANDER, The Washington Post
Published: Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006
Monet Corbett of Washington, D.C., is comforted by her
aunt, Angie Corbett, after the accidental death last
year of her mother, who worked for a US Airways
subsidiary. The dangerous conditions of airport ground
workers are drawing scrutiny.
WASHINGTON – They fix planes and load and
unload heavy bags in sweltering heat and frigid cold. For many
passengers, they are invisible, though they toil right underfoot.
Airport ground workers do their jobs amid the deafening roar of aircraft
engines and the arrival and departure of tanker-size jetliners. They
must avoid stepping in oil slicks and watch out for baggage carts
Now the ground workers’ tough conditions are coming under closer
scrutiny. For the first time, airlines and the Federal Aviation
Administration will co-host a three-day symposium focused on improving
safety on the tarmac at the nation’s airports. Participants in the
gathering, which begins Sept. 6, will analyze data on accidents to help
airlines identify dangers and adopt strategies for reducing risks.
“It’s next in line to be dealt with,” said Basil J. Barimo, vice
president of operations and safety for the Air Transport Association, a
trade group that represents major U.S. airlines.the most common injuries
among ground workers result from heavy lifting, in many cases causing
severe back strain. According to figures from the Bureau of Labor
Statistics, there were 4.53 injuries and fatalities per 100 airport
ground workers in 2004, the latest year for which data are available. By
comparison, coal miners had a rate of 6.58 injuries and fatalities per
100 workers; in construction, the rate was 5.77.
So far this year, four ground workers have been killed or seriously
injured, according to data collected by The Washington Post. In one
incident, a mechanic died in January when he was sucked into the engine
of a Continental Airlines aircraft at El Paso International Airport. A
month later, a baggage handler for Comair, a Delta Air Lines regional
carrier, was killed when he was struck by a baggage cart at the Detroit
airport. Three serious or deadly accidents occurred in 2005 and two in
Through the busy summer season, ground workers have been under increased
pressure to load and unload bags swiftly and to ensure that the aircraft
are prepared for safe travel. Many financially strapped carriers have
reduced their staffs, leaving more work for the remaining employees.
Some airlines have been hiring ground workers at lower wages to cut
Several airlines said training and supervision of workers remained as
much a priority as passenger safety.
Many workers and their families say more needs to be done to ensure a
safer environment, and they urge more oversight. FAA officials said that
the agency reviews each airline’s safety guidelines for the workers but
that it was up to the individual carriers to enforce those rules.
Jim Ballough, director of the FAA’s flight standards service, said the
agency sends inspectors to airports to assess flight preparations and
safety on the ground. But some airline officials said those random
inspections focus more on air-flight matters than on ground safety. The
officials added that more safeguards are needed to protect workers.
Workers complain that oversight tends to shift among agencies. After an
accident occurs, the government agency that leads the investigation
varies depending on the type of incident. Further, no one entity – not
the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, Occupational Safety
and Health Administration, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the airline
association or unions – keeps comprehensive records of injuries and
fatalities among ground workers. The involvement of multiple agencies
hinders record-keeping and can keep some cases from getting the
attention they need, industry experts say.
Paul Kempinski, director of ground safety for the International
Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers District 141, said unions
have urged government agencies to more rigorously monitor ground
operations. OSHA “only comes out when something happens,” said Kempinski,
who represents baggage handlers at United and Aloha airlines and US
Airways. “Something needs to be done sooner. Someone needs to be in
charge of oversight.”
Several high-risk industries have special federal agencies that oversee
working conditions. For example, the Labor Department created the Mine
Safety and Health Administration in 1978 to oversee mine safety. This
year, there have been 34 miner fatalities out of 108,734 workers.
That no one entity oversees workplace injuries within airlines does not
surprise those who study such accidents. Kenneth Rosenman, a physician
and professor at Michigan State University who in May published a
three-year investigation on workplace injuries and illnesses in
Michigan, said only about 40 percent of job injuries or fatalities are
reported. He said employees and companies think there’s little incentive
to report accidents to federal authorities.
“Our national system of counting injuries and illness is inadequate and
misses over half of the injuries and illness in the workplace,” Rosenman
Yolanda Corbett, 32, was attracted to a subsidiary of US Airways during
an earlier hiring fare in 2005. She liked the free travel offered to
employees and a chance to take her two young daughters to Disney World.
The pay, about $9.75 an hour, was low, but it represented steady work
for the single mother who had held such odd jobs as babysitting after
being laid off from an accounting position at a local Welfare to Work
For two weeks, US Airways baggage handlers instructed the D.C. resident
on the proper way to lift bags and navigate the busy runways of Reagan
National Airport in a baggage-loading cart. She received a 100 percent
accuracy rating in her training tests. In her third week on the job,
Corbett was killed when she lost control of a baggage cart, which rammed
the side of a regional jet, pinning her under the aircraft and severing
The NTSB attributed the accident to Corbett’s inexperience with driving
Corbett’s mother, Mary, said her daughter was trained to operate the
baggage cart, but the day she was killed was the first time she had
driven it by herself. “She wasn’t trained properly. She wasn’t ready to
drive that vehicle. It just wasn’t safe,” she said.
US Airways officials have declined to comment on training and safety
incidents prior to its 2005 merger with America West, citing the
company’s new management team.