Understanding airport ground handling risks

Aviation is traditionally perceived as a schoolbook example of an industry that is driven by high health and safety standards.

By Salla Lind-Kohvakka

An essential component of the industry is airport ground handling, and the aviation sector is heavily reliant on airline personnel who service aircraft while on the ground, as their work directly impacts the flight safety of an international airline’s operations.

Ground handling involves the successful completion of many critical tasks. Some common examples include the guiding of arriving and departing flights on the ground, luggage handling, and a variety of aircraft maintenance tasks that take place between flights.

However, in contrast to our long-held perception of the aviation industry as being highly safe, for those working in ground handling, the profession is known to be exceptionally hazardous. A 2017 study conducted in the United States revealed that the frequency of non-fatal accidents in the ground handling sector was four times higher than the accident frequency of the industry as a whole (Friend et al., 2017). This is due to a number of reasons.

Operating in demanding conditions

Firstly, a large percentage of ground handling activities take place outdoors. Demanding weather conditions especially during the winter can be a true challenge, not least in regions like the Nordics, for example. For ground handling crews this poses an additional risk, as they are often also responsible for the maintenance at the airport.

Snow and ice removal from walking and working surfaces are just some of the tasks that are required during the cold and dark winter season. Even simpler tasks can become tricky to execute safely when the operating conditions deteriorate to near or sub-zero temperatures and natural light is reduced.

During the summer, the season can also bring its own challenges, with the risks to ground handling crews of being exposed to increased UV radiation levels or heat stress, among other variables.

Factoring in ergonomics

In addition, while many parts of the aviation industry are becoming increasingly digitalised and automated, numerous ground handling tasks remain partly or fully manual in nature. Moreover, many of these tasks require personnel to work in difficult physical postures for extended periods of time, and demand the use of physical strength, or both.

For example, air freight containers vary between different aircraft manufacturers and even models. As a result, these freight containers also contain variations in their design. This makes the automatisation of freight handling a complex issue and leaves very few possibilities for fully automated solutions. Thus, freight, or luggage handling in general, is very much a task for manual labour, where size, weight and even the shape of the units to be handled (i.e. luggage) can vary considerably.

Therefore, in order to handle and pack these items efficiently and without damage, the work must be done by humans. From a workers’ perspective, this labour can lead to repetitive movements, as well as the heavy lifting and/or working with arms above the shoulder level, which is known to be especially demanding ergonomically.

Other physically demanding operations also include aircraft maintenance and cleaning tasks. These tasks often also require the use of heavy equipment and working in ergonomically poor positions. The use of aiding tools and devices may also be very challenging, due to aircraft structures and safety regulations, including strict safety margins that need to be adhered to when working around an aircraft.

As a result, ergonomics, including demanding physical postures and the need to use muscle strength during heavy lifts, may be quantitively the biggest safety risk for ground handling personnel.

Shift work adds complexity

Large airports never sleep, and there are flights arriving and departing throughout the 24-hour cycle. Ground handling naturally follows this same pace. Shift work is known to be a challenge for many people, as the sleep rhythm of humans is easily disturbed. Disrupted sleeping patterns can weaken recovery from work, as well as negatively impact leisure time.

One common issue in this context is that the family and friends of ground handling personnel are often living their lives in a more conventional routine by comparison. In addition to sleep disorders, shift work is often associated with many health and wellbeing issues, such as cardio-vascular diseases and increased mental health problems. The risks, therefore, of occupational accidents have been found to be higher in employees that are engaged in shift work.

Hectic, hazardous work environment

An airport is a shared workplace, with multiple operators and companies utilising the same premises for a wide variety of time-sensitive operations. Many of these operations are carried out with mobile machines and special vehicles, and these are often moving around in the same bustling areas as passengers and other employees working at the airport.

Due to the multiple functions taking place, and the high pace of the work required to meet the tight flight schedules, internal traffic is a potential hazard for humans and property alike, and the risks should not be neglected.

Exposure to risks

In addition to ergonomic risks, and risks relating to working outdoors, there are also various kinds of hazards and exposures that need to be considered as additional risks for ground handling employees. One frequent risk is noise, caused by the aircraft engines and brakes, for example. Other exposures can include biological hazards, like aircraft toilet cleaning tasks in particular, as well as other more general hazards when working in customer service.

With the COVID-19 pandemic representing a recent and serious global example of risk exposure, airports with many thousands of daily passengers have served as national gatekeepers, with the result that they have either helped mitigate or have allowed diseases to more easily spread between countries. At least this is the viewpoint that has become increasingly prevalent in media and society in general.

The issues covered in this article are just some examples that highlight the demands on ground handling crews in the aviation industry. Under these circumstances, the importance of a strong safety culture, as well as a comprehensive understanding of risks is highlighted as vital to safe and successful operations. Working under constant time pressure, and in conditions the come with a large variety of risks, safety should never be compromised for those personnel employed in ground handling.

More information

Polvi, M. Ground Handling Staff’s Health and Safety at Helsinki Airport. Master’s thesis, 2020, Tampere University, Master of Science (Economics and Business Administration), Degree Programme in Business Studies; Insurance Science

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