Airline ground and tarmac workers are being injured at an alarming pace. While there has always been an element of danger inherent in working around airplanes and heavy equipment, the post-Covid period has seen a dramatic increase in the number of these injuries. According to the Wall Street Journal, there was a 17% increase in injuries of airport workers in 2022 over 2019, with some airlines showing an increase of over 50%.
Why Are Tarmac Injuries Happening at a Greater Rate?
There are several reasons for an increase in workplace injuries on tarmacs:
- Technological advances have brought new and more powerful equipment onto the tarmac. Although it can increase efficiency, such equipment can also increase injuries to those who work in and around it. In addition, during Covid, machinery may not have received the testing and maintenance required to keep it in good working order.
- Huge turnover of airline and airport staff. Covid decimated the airline industry. Airline travel decreased by 74% and the industry lost $168 billion in 2020 alone. This led to mass layoffs of employees, including tarmac and ground workers. When airline travel rebounded, many previous workers had moved on to new careers. Currently, 60% of ground work companies are short-staffed.
- Less experienced employees. When airline workers moved on, they took their training and experience with them. At the ground handling company GAT, the percentage of employees who have been with the company for over a year has dropped from nearly 70% to less than 25%.
- Government oversight lacks teeth. The airline industry is tightly regulated — with the exception of ground workers. Most of the oversight is left to individual airlines, who sometimes prioritize profits over people. And, while lip service may be paid to safety requirements, employees report that what they’re being told in training and what happens on the tarmac are very different. In the event of an accident resulting in death, the most that can be levied is an administrative penalty of $15,625, levied by OSHA, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration. While Congress is looking at increasing regulations, that doesn’t help the people who are in danger right now.
Common Tarmac Injuries
The ways ground workers can be injured are as varied as the types of ground work. Here are some of the more common:
- Equipment accidents. This covers a huge range of accidents, from forklift injuries to being run over by a transport vehicle. As safety standards are eroded and staff becomes less experienced, the probability of this type of accident increases.
- Aircraft accidents. It’s impossible to talk about equipment accidents without referring to the fact that ground workers are around some of the biggest machines of all: aircraft. In 2022, a ground worker died when she was sucked into the engine of an airplane. She had been with the airline for only a year.
- Repetitive stress injuries. Hauling baggage and other heavy lifting can take a toll on workers’ bodies. Ground workers can suffer from sprains, strains, and other musculoskeletal injuries, particularly if they haven’t received proper training on how to do their job in a way that won’t cause damage.
- Weather injuries. Ground workers are outside in all sorts of weather, from extreme heat to snow. Even when planes are grounded due to severe weather, some ground workers may still be hard at work outdoors. Aside from exposure to the weather itself, these workers are also at an increased risk for slips and falls.
One thing standing in the way of a solution to these problems is mentioned above: ground workers are not as regulated, and therefore not as protected, as other airport and airline workers. Although ground handling companies and airlines are required to self-report staff injuries, there is no action taken to ensure that this is actually being done. The numbers of people injured could be underestimated due to this fact.
OSHA can investigate accidents affecting ground workers, but its enforcement options are limited, as noted above. OSHA can push for better training and safer workplaces for ground handling staff, but it doesn’t have the enforcement ability to make sweeping changes on its own.
Have You Been Injured Working on a Tarmac?
If you’ve been injured while working with an airline or a ground handling company, your best opportunity for justice may be in the civil court system. Safety regulations are routinely being ignored for profit; the best way to fight back is to cut into that profit. Civil cases can cost airlines substantially more than OSHA fees.
Your first step is to contact an experienced workplace injury attorney such as Plevin & Gallucci as soon as you can. You have a limited amount of time to bring a civil case (in Ohio, it’s two years), and the clock starts ticking the moment you’ve been injured. Plevin & Gallucci offers free initial consultations and only requires payment if we win your case. You have nothing to lose by calling.
Other steps to take:
- Stop discussing your injury with anyone at your job. This includes other employees and management. Even innocent statements can be used against you. Your lawyer can tell you exactly what you can say if anyone presses you for answers.
- Collect any medical documentation about your injuries, including any photographs of the scene that you or others might have taken, medical receipts, and insurance explanations of benefits.
Since government doesn’t have much enforcement power and some airlines and ground handling companies have proven they’re not willing to do the right thing, it’s up to injured workers and their legal counsel to ensure that justice prevails. Every successful court case makes it more expensive for companies to ignore workplace safety.