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FAA Proposes Extending OSH Coverage to Flight Crews in the Air

By Roy Maurer  12/4/2012
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Airline flight attendants cheered a proposal expanding workplace safety protections to airplane cabins, something they’ve sought for decades.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed Nov. 30, 2012, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) be given jurisdiction to enforce certain occupational safety and health standards currently not covered by FAA oversight.
The two agencies said they will form a team to review how OSHA standards on recordkeeping, blood-borne pathogens, noise, sanitation, hazard communication, access to employee exposure and medical records, and whistle-blower protection may apply to airline cabin crews.

The joint team is to report its findings on the applicability of these OSHA requirements by Dec. 6, 2012.

Flight Crews Claim Victory

Flight attendants have long sought coverage under the Occupational Safety and Health Act but were stymied by an oversight dispute created by a jurisdictional vacuum, as the FAA governs aircraft safety but not occupational issues inside the cabin.

In 1975, the FAA claimed exclusive jurisdiction over workplace safety and health for all crewmembers, preventing OSHA, the agency that regulates the safety and health of most U.S. workers, from protecting flight attendants and other crewmembers, while working onboard commercial airline flights.

“We made history today. Four decades after OSHA was created and safety and health protections were extended to the workplace of most Americans, we have finally achieved OSHA protections for flight attendants in the aircraft cabin,” Association of Flight Attendants International President Veda Shook wrote in an open letter to members. Shook called the proposed switch a “validation that the aircraft cabin is our workplace.”

An airline industry group, however, had a more cautious reaction to the proposal.

Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, said that while workplace safety is a top priority for airlines, the current FAA oversight is effective. We “believe that expanding the regulatory process across multiple agencies is unnecessary, creates conflicting regulatory authority and a host of logistical problems throughout the industry,” Day said in a media statement.

The policy announcement is a result of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law in February. The act instructed the aviation agency to review its policies concerning regulatory oversight.

The FAA determined that its regulations “do not completely encompass the safety and health aspects of the work environments of aircraft crewmembers while the aircraft is in operation, and that there are working conditions for which it has not promulgated occupational safety or health standards.”

Under the new agreement, the FAA will continue to be responsible for the safety of flight-deck crew such as pilots and co-pilots, and OSHA will continue to enforce its standards for other aviation industry employees, such as maintenance and ground support personnel.

Dangers in the Cabin

For decades, flight attendants have claimed that aircraft cabins are dangerous workplaces, according to the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 47,000 workers at 26 airlines.

Major sources of injuries for flight attendants, the group said, include:

  • Food and beverage carts that can weigh up to 500 pounds.
  • Cuts and burns from galley equipment and oven racks.
  • Slippery galley floors and icy walkways.
  • Handling or being struck by oversized and overweight carry-on baggage.
  • Exposure to potentially infected blood when providing in-flight emergency medical treatment including mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, without the proper equipment or medical follow-up.

The policy proposal notice was sent to the Federal Register for publication Nov. 30. The 30-day comment period begins when the policy notice is published.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow me on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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