The nation's flight attendants want to be adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
After 25 years of pleading with the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate the health and safety of flight attendants, the union representing them wants OSHA to step in and address what they say are hazards in their airborne workplace: bouts with poor air quality, falling baggage, severe turbulence, heavy beverage carts and inadequate protection from passengers' blood and bodily fluids while aiding in-flight accident victims.
"Just like other workers, flight attendants need protection in their workplace. We deserve the protection of the legally enforceable standards [that] OSHA has already promulgated or will promulgate in the future," said Pat Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. "Every day without this protection, more and more flight attendants are injured unnecessarily. We have nowhere to turn for a review of these injuries and illnesses and no one who is willing to take the responsibility for eliminating the workplace conditions that contribute to them."
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, there is a provision that provides for the preemption of OSHA standards if another federal regulator addresses working conditions. In this case, the FAA assumed that responsibility in 1975.
At a public meeting the FAA held last Friday, several flight attendants testified about the injuries they suffered and the dangers they face. It is a side of the job for the nation's 100,000 attendants that few passengers are privy to.
One flight attendant said she developed a neurological disorder after she was exposed to what she called "a noxious, caustic odor" in the aircraft. She said she has not worked as a flight attendant for 2 1/2 years.
Another attendant, who did not name his airline, described his worry after a passenger vomited into his mouth while he was administering CPR. He said the company offered no medical follow-up and he had to go to a private doctor to get a hepatitis B shot. The face mask he wore part of the time he was giving aid, he added, was cleaned with a bottle of tequila that the ground crew pulled from its van.
Flight attendants said there is no standard data on the extent of in-flight injuries, but they estimate that about 15 out of 100 cabin crew members report an injury or illness each year, based a sample from three carriers.
They note that the FAA declared in 1975 that it would handle health and safety issues. But they complain that it has failed to issue rules that cover blood-borne pathogens, ergonomic injuries, air quality, and the operation of food and beverage carts that can weigh more than 200 pounds.
If the meeting is any indication, the FAA seems to be getting the message that more needs to be done beyond the rules already on the books. Those rules cover emergency safety equipment, fire protection, protective breathing rescue aids, lighting, crew seat belts, ventilation, heating and noise. There are also requirements that latex gloves and medical kits be onboard aircraft.
The FAA has studied air quality and pronounced it as good as that found in any public building.
"We do need to understand whether there is a set of issues we have not adequately addressed," said Peggy Gilligan, FAA deputy associate administrator for regulation and certification. In her opening statement, Gilligan said the meeting "is only the beginning of a complex undertaking" and "I'm glad to see we're all starting down the path together."
Gilligan said the FAA has considered allowing OSHA to have more regulatory authority, but it became clear that "the operating environment of the aircraft is so unique--and so closely intertwined to aviation safety determinations that FAA must make--that the FAA must take the lead on understanding and addressing the occupational safety and health risks experienced by flight crews."
She added that many of the safety issues that concern flight attendants, such as food and beverage carts in the cabin and air quality, have a direct bearing on the design of the aircraft and its operation. "The issues become linked." Gilligan said. "It's not like setting air quality standards for a building."
This isn't the first time the flight attendants have pressed their case with the FAA.
In 1990, the union filed a lengthy petition pointing out that OSHA should have jurisdiction in areas where the FAA had not specifically regulated. The FAA turned down the petition seven years later, saying the issues had merit, "but do not address an immediate safety concern."
The union's hopes that it could get OSHA in its corner were raised in July 1998 when OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress said, "Should the FAA change its policy on OSHA coverage, we will assume jurisdiction and proceed as appropriate." Since then, there have been staff-level discussions between the two agencies. The result: It has become clear that the FAA has chosen to retain its authority, and that OSHA seems to have concluded the FAA is best suited to handle the special needs of these workers.
"We will continue to meet with them and offer guidance and technical assistance," said Tom Galassi, deputy director of OSHA's directorate of compliance programs.
That's an approach that the airlines probably could live with though they were emphatic at the meeting that the "FAA retain authority over what takes place in an aircraft." The airlines said many OSHA standards are incorporated into their safety programs.
"Our reply is that the airlines and FAA have historically and consistently responded to the occupational safety and health needs of crew members," said J. Donald Collier, vice president of engineering, maintenance and materiel at the Air Transport Association. Collier said ATA members have embraced "good housekeeping" practices and provided safety kits to address concerns about blood-borne pathogens aboard planes.
A United Airlines Inc. official said it has addressed ergonomic issues by redesigning its carts. The airline also offers courses in body mechanics to protect crew members, and has blood-borne pathogen kits abroad its aircraft, he added.
"To bring OSHA into the tube and mandate modifications to that tube would be disastrous," said Edmond Soliday, United's vice president for safety, quality assurance and security.