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Flight attendants and aircraft cabin safety won a major victory recently with a government report that said federal workplace safety standards should apply to them. The report was issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)/Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Aviation Safety and Health Team. It concluded that OSHA’s standards on medical records, record keeping, anti-discrimination, hazard communication, and sanitation should apply to aircraft. The bloodborne pathogen and noise standards also can be applied in a modified form.
If the recommendations of this report are fulfilled, flight attendants will get employer-paid hepatitis B vaccinations, hearing tests, formal sanitation standards, and the right to refuse dangerous or life-threatening work. Employers also will be required to share injury and illness records as well as medical and exposure records with OSHA and the flight attendants, says Patricia Friend, AFA International president. AFA is the largest flight attendant union in the world, joining together more than 50,000 flight attendants from 27 airlines.
"This study was long overdue and conclusively proves that OSHA protections can be extended to aircraft cabins to help ensure the safety and health of flight attendants and passengers," Friend says. "But this is only a first step. We must continue to push to get these standards implemented and enforced."
However, Friend says there are issues in the report that must be further considered. The current limitation on OSHA’s jurisdiction, within three miles of U.S. borders, poses special issues for flight attendants whose work takes them outside of the territorial United States. The issue of jurisdiction needs to be carefully studied in light of the fact that a flight attendant’s workplace is a U.S.-registered aircraft, wherever that aircraft happens to be, Friend says. Another item that may require careful examination is federal vs. state OSHA jurisdiction. Friend says she remains concerned that the dispute could hamper implementation of the report’s recommendations.
Flight attendants lost OSHA protections in 1975 when the FAA claimed jurisdiction over the health and safety of flight attendants and pilots. And while the pilots are medically certified and their health is closely monitored by the FAA’s Office of Aviation Medicine, occupational safety and health hazards faced by the overwhelmingly female flight attendant profession have essentially been ignored for the past 25 years, she says.
Friend says the lack of occupational safety and health protections led to an extremely high rate of injury to flight attendants. An AFA review of injury and illness logs at 13 U.S. airlines showed that out of 31,422 flight attendants, 10% reported an injury that required follow-up medical attention or caused them to lose time from work in 1998. That’s more than double the injury rate to miners (4.9%), and more than triple the national average of 3.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In February 2000, AFA raised the intensity of the fight to win occupational safety and health protections with a campaign called OSHA NOW!, which included conducting high-profile media events, with flight attendant leafleting and rallying at airports and in front of the FAA, getting petitions signed, forming a coalition with sympathetic groups, and calling on politicians to support the fight.
In August, the FAA and OSHA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a procedure for coordinating and supporting enforcement of the OSHA Act with respect to the working conditions of employees on the aircraft in operation (other than flight crew).