Improving safety for ground handlers

Posted: 1 December 2006 | Christine Barringer, Head of Transportation Sector, Health and Safety Executive | No comments yet

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible, along with colleagues in Local Authorities (LAs), for enforcing health and safety legislation and standards in all work activities in Great Britain.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible, along with colleagues in Local Authorities (LAs), for enforcing health and safety legislation and standards in all work activities in Great Britain.

Following concerns about increasing accident numbers at airports, and with the introduction of the Government’s Revitalising Health & Safety strategy, the HSE and industry representatives established the Revitalising Health & Safety in Air Transport (RHSAT) initiative in 2002. Since then, the number of injuries to airport workers has been in decline, a testament to the ongoing commitment of duty holders to make the airport transport industry a safer place to work.

Key risk areas have been identified: falls from height from catering vehicles, open aircraft doors, and other types of access or servicing equipment; Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in baggage and cargo handling; vehicle management; and slips, trips and falls. All of these risks are particularly evident during aircraft turnround, and HSE published HSG209 Aircraft Turnround in 2000, giving further guidance on the application of legislation such as the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999. The guidance is intended to be complimentary to CAA guidance CAP642 Airside Safety Management.

Despite some success, neither HSE nor the industry are complacent. HSE has recently prosecuted a catering company following a fall from a high loader, and we have issued enforcement notices relating to baggage handling and to inadequate guarding and risks of falls from height on other equipment. But, we also continue to work together via an Industry Strategy Group (ISG) made up of representatives from airports, airlines, ground handlers and trade unions. The ISG is tasked with identifying priority risks and developing industry wide strategies to reduce accidents and ill health. It has:

  • Agreed tough provisional targets in the areas of musculoskeletal disorders, workplace transport and falls from height
  • Begun to develop strategies to achieve them
  • Made real progress in sharing best practice, for example between caterers and airlines on the difficult issue of safety when opening aircraft doors
  • Co-operated in introducing maximum bag weights to reduce manual handling injuries among baggage handlers, and is now taking a lead, with HSE, in the adoption of a 23-25 kilo maximum bag weight limit
  • Cemented the working relationship between HSE, CAA and the industry
  • Developed an international presence through its links with other agencies such as US Agency OSHA and the International Aviation Handlers Association
  • Helped HSE to develop guidance for its inspectors on key issues

Table 1 shows accident numbers to workers and members of the public (MOPs) reported to HSE and LAs under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) under Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes for scheduled and non-scheduled air transport, supporting services to air transport, and cargo handling. While such figures cannot show absolute numbers of accidents at airports, they do show the trend over recent years.

Table 1

Table 1

Accident and ill-health rates, showing true trends against varying worker numbers, are a more important indicator. The ISG is now working towards establishing an industry benchmarking scheme, which will allow better monitoring of overall accident and ill-health rates across the industry.

In 2004/05, slips and trips, falls from height, manual handling and being hit by a moving or falling object accounted for nearly 70 per cent of the major injuries and injuries resulting in airport workers being absent from their job for three or more days.

At a time of expansion in the industry, increasing competitiveness in all areas of operation, security concerns and emphasis on provision of safe access to air transport for passengers of reduced mobility, ramp safety management is a key factor for both aircraft safety and worker health and safety. HSE has published guidance on aircraft turnaround (HSG209) that outlines the responsibilities for health and safety management under Regulations such as the “Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999”, which implement the EC Health and Safety Framework Directive.

If there is communication, co-operation and co-ordination between all employers sharing a workplace, everyone can meet their legal obligations and continue towards making the airport transport industry a safer place to work. HSE continues to encourage the development of robust management plans, and inspectors will continue to target overall management systems during turnround, when looking at key risks such as falls from height, vehicle control, and risks of sprains and strains in baggage handling.

For any safety management system to succeed, we also need a well trained, competent workforce. Training has always been a key element in health and safety management, and many companies already have well established training programmes. More recently, the Airport Operators Association (AOA) have been working with the Sector Skills Council for passenger transport Go Skills to develop National Occupational Standards in areas such as airside competence. HSE hope that we can all continue to work together to develop higher standards of training and competence for all airport workers.

HSE and the ISG agree that short, medium and long term objectives are important. We have successfully targeted key risks, such as falls from catering vehicles, and are now working on improved procedures to avoid risks of falls from open aircraft doors, and the adoption of a 23-25 kilo maximum bag weight limit. The industry is currently involved in a major airport led initiative to reduce back injuries, in line with the HSE ‘Better Backs’ campaign.

Bag weights are only one factor in manual handling risk. We are also currently involved in discussions with aircraft and GSE manufacturers to encourage consideration of health and safety at the design stage, and the introduction and assessment of new technology, such as reversing aids on vehicles and improved baggage handling equipment.

HSE works closely with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on matters of mutual concern around aircraft on the ramp, with relative responsibilities detailed in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between HSE and CAA. HSE and CAA inspectors undertake joint visits and inspections where relevant to ensure a common message and understanding about the inter-relationship of flight safety and occupational health and safety.

HSE, CAA and industry are also working together on in-flight occupational health issues, responsibilities for which have been allocated to CAA under the “Aviation (Working Time) Regulations 2004,” which implement the European Horizontal Amending Directive.

Accidents and ill-health result in high costs to the industry and the economy of the country, as well as the pain and suffering to those injured and their families. The moral and business case for action is very clear. Neither the HSE, nor the British aviation industry can work in isolation. The RHSAT ISG provides a focal point for key players in the industry, including organisations such as the Airport Operators Association, Trade Unions and the Charter Airlines Safety Group, as well as individual airports, airlines and service providers. Work is continuing to introduce further improvements and to engage with the international air transport community in introducing safer systems of work. The industry has accepted the need to look not only at the short and medium term solutions, but to look at the much longer-term solutions of improved equipment, airport and aircraft design – equipment and facilities designed with worker and health and safety in mind.

The continuing work of the RHSAT group and the wider airport community will ensure that our airports are safer and healthier places to work in the future.

References and links:

Further information can be found on the HSE website at

The MoU between HSE and CAA can be found at

Go Skills

Christine Barringer

Christine Barringer is an experienced health and safety inspector who now heads up the Health and Safety Executive’s Transportation Section, taking care of the marine, aviation and road haulage industries.

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