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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Danger Zone: Ramp and Hangar Safety

Aviation can be a dangerous business. But, a look at hangar and ramp accidents shows the costs can be high, even deadly. Training, attitude and reasonable expectations can reduce the number of incidents.

Charlotte Adams

For all its glamour, aviation is a dangerous business. Pilots and mechanics are well aware of the risks and are highly trained to manage them. But the same can not be said for many of the ground support workers in aviation ramps and hangars. The lack of a standard approach to training, the relentless time pressures which many of these workers face, their congested and sometimes confusing workspaces, and their physically demanding but often ill-paid positions can create a dangerous environment.

The industry recognizes this and is taking steps to improve it, in general, business and commercial aviation, but are these changes happening fast enough? There are also major obstacles to understanding the scope of the ramp safety problem and thus improving it: government data is incomplete and privately collected data is considered proprietary.

The cost of ramp accidents is high. According to the Flight Safety Foundation, approximately 27,000 ramp accidents and incidents occur annually worldwide and around 243,000 people are injured — about nine per 1,000 departures. The cost to major airlines was estimated to be at least $10 billion a year. The Intl Air Transport Association (IATA) reckons the direct costs of airplane damage to be about $4 billion a year. IATA attributes the problem to "minimal oversight" of ground service providers in the selection and licensing process, in systems implementation, training and development, and in auditing, reporting and compliance procedures.

In a report published in late 2007, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) described the typical ramp as a "small, congested area in which departing and arriving aircraft are serviced by ramp workers, including baggage, catering and fueling personnel...the presence of a large number of people utilizing equipment in a relatively small area, often under considerable time pressure, creates an environment in which injuries and fatalities can occur." As an example of what can happen, GAO cited the December 2005 scare at Alaska Airlines, when an MD80 experienced sudden cabin depressurization as a result of an unreported incident in which a ground vehicle had punctured the aircraft’s fuselage.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. workers supporting the air transport sector in jobs such as airport operation and the servicing, repairing, maintaining, storing and ferrying of aircraft, suffered 2,780 nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses involving days away from work in 2006. The data showed an upward trend from 2003 (2,680) and 2005 (2,470). Many of the injuries in this category occurred to service workers, such as ticketing agents and bellhops, who lift heavy bags but don’t work on the ramp.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to tell, even from this randomly selected survey data, that serious injuries are commonplace among workers such as aircraft mechanics, vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, and material movers. Among the most frequent types of injuries were: sprains and strains; bruises and contusions; fractures; and cuts, lacerations and punctures.

Fatalities also occur. GAO found that of 29 fatal ramp accidents (across all sectors of aviation) from 2001 through 2006, 17 involved ground workers, eight were passengers and four were pilots. These misfortunes typically occurred when employees were struck by objects such as vehicles, or were crushed, or fell. Of the eight passengers who died, five were struck by propellers.

NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) database is also full of complaints about commercial aviation ramp safety, ranging from poor signage and lighting to inept marshaling and the parking of equipment inside protected areas. Ramp workers were sometimes cited for putting the need for timely pushback ahead of safety or company policy, or for speeding and erratic driving of fuel trucks and other vehicles. Many of these complaints reported aircraft contact. One of these incidents sounds hilarious — when a member of the cabin cleaning crew tried to marshal an aircraft — but if the pilot hadn’t stopped the aircraft at receiving unintelligible signals, there could have been injury and aircraft damage.

A glance at the safety database of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which records incidents with significant aircraft damage and injury, spotlights lapses on general aviation ramps, as well. Pilots were often at fault, leaving engines running while searching for objects on the cockpit floor, visiting the bathroom or allowing a photographer to wander near an aircraft. One 71-year-old pilot collided with the terminal building while attempting to park his aircraft on the terminal’s ramp, while another older pilot impacted a hangar on his landing roll. In other cases, workers on the ramp inserted chocks while the engines were running, directed jet blast onto a taxiway (with ill effects for an incoming plane), or "guided" an aircraft into a construction vehicle.

Data Problem

The aviation industry likes to say that "safety is data-driven." But in the case of ramp safety, the data is insufficient. GAO said that "a lack of complete accident data and standards for ground handling" hinders the effort to understand the nature, extent and cost of accidents and to improve safety. Investigative agencies only look into certain classes of accidents, and that their data is incomplete, especially in the area of nonfatal injuries. According to GAO, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) only investigates ramp problems "when they involve fatalities or the hospitalization of three or more employees." And data collected by private entities is not available to the public "for competitive reasons," according to the agency.

The owners of privately collected data, however, are using it to improve safety. The Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents commercial carriers, has used knowledge, developed in the course of eight years’ data collection, to create guidelines and best practices for members. "We know we have an issue with ground damage," says Basil Barimo, ATA’s vice president of operations and safety. The organization planned to sign a memorandum of understanding with OSHA, which will include data collection, as well as outreach and communications, he says.

ATA has also worked with equipment manufacturers and designers to improve the design of cargo loaders in order to better protect users, as well as airplanes. And Barimo points to promising new technologies, such as self-parking jetways.

GAO also proposed the following actions, some of which have been undertaken by various parties:

  • Promoting a safety culture

  • Standardizing airport ramp markings

  • Improving or increasing ramp worker training

  • Increasing supervision

  • Developing safer designs for ramp equipment

Safety Initiatives

IATA is starting a safety audit program for ground handling companies, including a worldwide ground operational safety benchmark and standard. This effort is known as the IATA Safety Audit for Ground Operations (ISAGO, pronounced eye-say-go). The National Air Transportation Association (NATA), an organization with many fixed based operator (FBO) members, is creating a Web-based event reporting database which it will make available to its SMS (safety management system) participants.

American Airlines also is making strides, according to Jerry Yates, Systems Safety Committee Chairman for the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) with that carrier. Yates claims American is bucking an upward national trend in injuries for heavy transport workers. He expects the number of injuries per 100 base and line maintenance employees at American to decrease by 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively, from May 2006 to May 2008. The national average of injuries per 100 heavy transport employees, he says, is projected to increase by 6.6 percent over the same period. (Note: these "heavy transport" workers that AA is compared with may or may not be in the aviation industry.)

Yates mentions several factors that may have contributed to this favorable trend. Six or seven years ago, the airline and the union began to set up emergency response teams, which now exist at all three of the airline’s maintenance bases. The Tulsa, Okla., base relies on its own employees, many of whom are volunteer firemen. Defibrillators and stretchers are located within a 90-second walk from any given point on the floor, yielding a quick response time for the injured. Around 90 employees at Tulsa have been trained in emergency response procedures, he says. They can also do high-angle rescue and confined-space entry. Although Yates doesn’t have statistics, he says that this training and readiness have been well worth the effort and expense. He hopes to see this type of support rolled out to line maintenance workers, as well.

Another initiative in the works at American Airlines concerns standardizing personal protective equipment (PPE). While the maintenance bases have a "wealth of gloves and hearing protection" devices, smaller line stations may be less endowed. In an effort to "level the playing field," the airline and the union have created a national PPE review board, which identifies items as standard gear, so that the equipment can be bought in volume, reducing costs as well as increasing safety.

PLST Online

NATA, meanwhile, is rolling out a computer-based training (CBT) version of the Professional Line Service Training (PLST) offering that it acquired from the Aviation Training Institute in 2000. The association invited attendees at its March 2008 FBO Leadership Conference to try the program at the NATA booth and began beta testing of "PLST Online" in April. The redesign, which took four-and-a-half years to complete, includes eight modules, 32 major topics and 4,000 images.

Besides the general emphasis on safety, there is a specific safety module which includes the use of PPE, such as gloves, glassware, hearing protection, as well as refueling safety and emergency procedures in the case of fires, fuel spills and bad weather conditions. NATA hopes to add a module on deicing procedures. There is a separate module on fire safety, including information such as extinguishing agents for electrical and fuel fires and minimizing fire risk. There is also a security module covering items such as badging and contacting the TSA.

PLST Online involves more than memorizing instructions on a screen. Students have to show onsite trainers that they can actually carry out procedures. The online part itself is designed so that exam questions change for students who need a second try. Among new features are more realistic training in marshaling via videos of real people and more guidance on additive injectors.

NATA plans to launch a second phase, which will roll out incrementally starting this summer.

This will include instruction specific to aircraft types. It could, for example, provide the nitty gritty details on fueling a Falcon 900, such as where to hook up and what to flick on and off, says Amy Koranda, director of safety management.

Hangar Hazards

Hangars can be hazardous, as well, points out Richard Gomez, VP of education for MedAire, a firm that provides hangar safety training for maintenance personnel and others who work in that environment. Potential injuries range from tripping on grates in the hangar floor, to inhaling or being burned by chemicals used for cleaning and servicing airplanes, to receiving shocks or burns from the wires and electrical equipment. Workers need to know how to store and ventilate chemicals and how to label of wires and cables, Gomez says. The uniqueness of MedAire’s program, says Gomez, is that it not only covers the relevant standards and identifies the hazards and the risks, but it tells you how to treat injuries that can occur. He cites an actual case where a technician working on an engine cut a high-pressure hydraulic line and was sprayed in the eye with Skydrol. The "general industry course" would tell students to wear goggles, he says. In the actual incident, he recalls that someone "ran to the lunchroom," got milk and poured it into the sufferer’s eye. "But the right thing to do," he says, "is to flush [the eye] with mineral oil" and then transport the person to the local EMS or hospital. MedAire offers a two-day hangar safety training course that includes the theory behind the OSHA regulations, the whys and hows of prevention, preparedness, and what to do — as a first line of defense — in case of injuries such as chemical burns, broken bones, deep lacerations or electrical shock. The course includes a CPR module, which MedAire plans to beef up next year to include the use of one mannequin per student. The mannequin and an instructional video can be taken home afterwards for additional practice. The company provides the training at customer sites, but is trying to make the program more flexible in schedule by adding an e-learning component. This computer-based segment would include the "didactic part" of the program, such as how to record and report occupational injuries.

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