March 10, 2005

Airport baggage screening: a high hazard job

USA Today recently ran a feature on airport baggage screeners and the extraordinarily high rate of injuries that they suffer in the course of their work. Approximately one out of every four workers reports an injury and one out of 8 workers has an injury that requires lost time. Yikes - this makes bag screening one of the nation's most hazardous jobs.

Injured workers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), more than two-thirds of whom are screeners, missed nearly a quarter-million days of work last year. The lost job time has contributed to a staffing shortage that has strained checkpoint security and lengthened lines at airports.

TSA employees injured on the job missed work in 2004 at five times the rate of the rest of the federal workforce. They were injured four times as often as construction-industry workers and seven times as often as miners.

Most of the injuries are soft tissue strains and sprains resulting from lifting and carrying heavy bags. Since most of the screening machines and checkpoints were added after 9/11 and squeezed in wherever they would fit, few screening stations were designed with an eye to ergonomics. OSHA has issued numerous hazard citations to airports across the country.

Adding to these problems, the TSA staffed up quickly and in most instances, strength tests were not part of the application process, and training - at least from a safety standpoint - was minimal. In a snowballing problem, the more staff injuries and absences there are, the more overworked remaining employees are. According to the article, the staff attrition rate last year was 22%.

This is distressing both for the workers involved and also for airline travelers. Although authorities say that security is not being compromised, it is hard to see how injured, overworked, and poorly trained workers can deliver the best results.

OSHA Ergonomics eTool on Baggage Handling
Safe Lifting
Safe lifting tecchniques
Lifting Safety: Tips to Help Prevent Back Injuries



Are they federal employees or employees of a private contractor ? Who foots the bill for the injuries and lost time ?

Great question, Deane.

First, we should thank Thomas Frank, at USA Today, for a great story.

Yes, these 45,000 workers are federal employees of the Transportation Security Administration within Homeland Security. So, the $67 million dollars of incurred losses from July, 2003, through June, 2004, is paid by all of us.

Here at Lynch Ryan, we're not surprised that there is a serious safety and workers' compensation problem, given that all those screeners were hired nearly overnight, but we are surprised that the problem is as monumental as it appears to be.

To me, it's interesting to note that it was another federal agancy, the CIA, that coined the word, "blowback," in the early 1960s to give a vivid image of the law of unintended consequences, which is certainly at work here.

Tomorrow, Jon Coppelman is going to write more about this for us in another Insider posting. He's going to offer some reasonable recommendations, and he'll describe how this is a powerful teachable moment for employers who need to grow a workforce.

We'd love to know what other readers think of this very serious national issue.


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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on March 10, 2005 9:46 AM.

The long tail of insolvencies: Colorado, New York employers face potential assessments was the previous entry in this blog.

Follow up: Haste and Waste in Airport Security is the next entry in this blog.

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