Fearful of exposure to Ebola, about 200 of the people who clean airplane cabins walked off the job overnight at LaGuardia International Airport.
The walkout came a day after health and safety experts from the Service Employees International Union, which represents many unionized airport employees, raised concerns over whether cabin cleaners were being adequately protected.
“As a physician I know first-hand that it takes a team of people and proper protocols to safeguard against the spread of Ebola and other infectious diseases,” said L. Toni Lewis of the SEIU. “It’s people on the front line, like cabin cleaners, who are the first line of defense against protecting the general public from contamination. SEIU is proud to step up to provide this essential education and training.”
The union said its members need to be better prepared to deal with the threat.
“This workforce needs effective training – and it needs to happen now,” said Mark Catlin, also of the SEIU. “While employers – the contractors who hire airplane cabin cleaners – have primary responsibility for training their workers, SEIU is hosting tomorrow’s briefing to ensure our members are prepared. It’s imperative that a crisis situation won’t be the first time they’ve seen the required equipment.”
Alberto Grant, Jr., an airway terminal cleaner at John F. Kennedy International Airport, articulated member fears.
“When we clean the bathrooms, we are exposed to everything, so we definitely need this training,” said Grant. “In the past contractors have told us just to wash our hands and use gloves. Cleaning kits aren’t readily available to protect against the various bodily fluids we encounter every day. Sometimes all we have are paper towels to wipe down the bathrooms.”
Catlin and Lewis planned to lead training sessions for airport cabin cleaners, terminal cleaners, and wheelchair attendants in New York on Thursday, covering guidelines from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the International Air Transport Association.
The CDC guidance for cleaning cabins is outlined in a directive to airlines:
Ebola spreads through direct contact by touching the blood or other body fluids (like feces, saliva, urine, vomit, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola. Infected blood or other body fluids can spread Ebola through breaks in your skin or if they get into your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Treat any body fluid as though it is infectious. Hand hygiene is the most important infection control measure.
When cleaning aircraft and any contaminated areas after a flight with a sick traveler who may have Ebola, CDC recommends that personnel:
Use disposable protective equipment while cleaning the passenger cabin and lavatories. If working with reusable equipment, properly clean and disinfect it after use.
Change gloves if they become dirty or damaged during cleaning.
Consider double-gloving if cleaning large amounts of blood or other body fluids.
Throw away used gloves according to your company’s recommended infection control precautions.
Clean hands with soap and water immediately after gloves are removed or when changing gloves. (When soap is not available, use waterless alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.) Use only soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Eye protection: goggles or face shield
Long-sleeved, waterproof gown
Closed-toe shoes and shoe covers. If increased risk of splashing or area appears highly contaminated with body fluids, wear rubber boots or shoe covers. Wear gloves to carefully remove shoe covers to avoid contamination of hands.
Safe removal and hygiene
Carefully remove protective equipment to avoid contaminating yourself or your clothes.
After removing protective equipment, clean your hands. Use only soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Clean affected areas
Use an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered cleaner/disinfectant that has been tested and approved for use by the airplane manufacturers.
Lavatory surfaces: door handle, lock, faucet, sink, walls, counter, and toilet seat.
Sick traveler’s seat and the seats around it, seat backs, armrests, tray tables, video monitor, light and air controls, and adjacent walls and windows
If a seat cover or carpet is obviously dirty from blood or body fluids, it should be removed and discarded by the methods used for biohazardous material.
If surfaces are contaminated with large amounts of body fluids (such as blood, vomit, feces), clean off the material before applying disinfectant.
Special cleaning of upholstery, carpets, or storage compartments is not indicated unless they are obviously dirty from blood or other body fluids.
Special vacuuming equipment or procedures are not necessary.
Do NOT use compressed air, pressurized water or similar procedures, which might create droplets of infectious materials.