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Airport check-in workers: little gain but lots of pain

In today's high-cost, low-budget and passenger-intense air travel wars, check-in workers are the front line troops in the airlines' battle for survival. And like anyone exposed in battle, they're also the first to suffer. A recently published ILO study ( Note 1) shows a serious loss of productivity and a dramatic burden of pain and violence besets check-in workers, and offers strategies for improving the situation.

Article | 20 September 2005

GENEVA (ILO on line) - They are the taggers and baggers, the people who process passengers faster than fast food and daily move more weight than the average power lifter - often while wearing high heels. But that's not all. Four out of five have been victims of verbal "ground rage", one out of five has been threatened and one in 20 has suffered physical assault.

"Pushing wheelchairs with obese people through the snow, outside the airport in winter, is really hard", says one Canadian check-in agent working at a small, regional airport in Canada. Another reports having 40 seconds to handle check-in, less time than it takes to deliver a tray of fast food to a hungry customer. And most lift and carry thousands of kilograms of bulging bags each and every working day - or more.

The results are immediate and long-lasting. About half of the airport check-in workers studied reported constant neck pain, shoulder or lower back pain. Only one out of four reported having no pain at all. Many live with pain 24 hours a day.

"These are not little sores or cuts, but rather significant suffering, bad enough to seriously disturb their sleep", comments Dr. Ellen Rosskam, Senior Work Security Specialist in the ILO Socio-Economic Security Programme and the principal author of the study ( Note 2). Yet, surprisingly, check-in workers do not have high rates of absenteeism unless their pain becomes debilitating, demonstrating their level of commitment to their job and high degree of professionalism.

The study was carried out in three airports in Canada and Switzerland (two international and one regional) and identifies occupational health hazards and violence from aggressive passengers as the most important challenges for workers, trade unions and management. Of equal importance, the study examines modern management practices and shows how these are unsustainable, and ultimately not profit-generating. The report shows how growing international competition, mergers, alliances, and cost-efficiency strategies are putting increasing pressure on jobs and conditions of work in the industry.

Awkward and static postures throughout a work shift, lifting, carrying and tagging baggage, plus non-adjustable computer stations, are all factors in check-in work that appear to cause, or contribute to neck, shoulder, back, leg, foot and wrist pain. The pains come from musculo-skeletal disorders (MSD); that is, inflammatory problems of the joints, muscles, tendons and nerves.

If, in addition, their work is characterized by stress and tight deadlines, an explosion of MSD can be expected. "I was told that a normal passenger should take 40 seconds to check in. I used to be able to take more time with passengers. I want more contact time with passengers, to leave them happy, not to be a 40-second per passenger machine", explains a Swiss worker.

The check-in agents, most of them are women, handle more than 100 pieces of baggage a day weighing up to 33 kilograms each. Even at fully mechanized baggage check-in systems, workers often lift, carry, push and pull bags, often in painful postures. "I was supposed to attend a training seminar on safe lifting, but it was cancelled several times. I have no idea of any safe lifting limit", says a Canadian check-in agent. Not surprisingly, the cumulative effects often lead to severe pain that interferes with sleep and job performance.

The costs for employers from lost work time due to sickness absence and decreased productivity can be measured directly. In 2004, nearly 16 per cent of workers lost work time due to neck pain, and nearly 20 per cent were absent from work due to lower back pain.

"The indirect costs to both workers and employers, however, are more difficult to measure, and are borne mainly by the workers and their families. But these costs should be of cause to management given that productivity, alertness on the job, customer satisfaction, and efficiency can be reduced when workers are sleep deprived, or where muscular pain causes restriction in freedom of movement", says Dr. Rosskam, adding that, "A substantial number of workers performed their job despite significant neck, shoulder and/or back pain".

The cost of lost work time and diminished productivity indicates the need for workstation and work process re-design, in particular installing a fully mechanized baggage handling system where one does not exist. "The higher prevalence of upper and lower back pain at the Canadian regional airport, compared with the two international airports in Canada and Switzerland, provides evidence supporting the need for fully mechanizing baggage check-in systems", comments Dr. Rosskam.

According to the ILO expert, ergonomic features should include the possibility for workers to alternate between sitting and standing throughout their work shift, and to adjust their table and chair heights.

Ground rage

Besides the prevalence and severity of MSD's, work-related violence from aggressive passengers is another serious issue facing check-in workers as well. According to the study, one in 20 check-in workers in the study has been physically assaulted on the job, over 80 per cent have been subjected to verbal abuse from passengers, and over 20 per cent have been threatened by passengers. These figures come from two countries known for their peaceful civilian lives. Figures can be expected to be much higher in countries where citizens are known to be more aggressive and violent.

"So far, there has been concern about violence against cabin crew. However, violence against ground personnel must be equally taken into account, particularly since check-in workers are the first line of defence to protect passengers and crew inside aircrafts", explains Dr. Rosskam.

The study suggests expanding the occupational niche of check-in workers so they can play a recognized role as safety professionals in civil aviation. In expanding the job, workers should have the confidence, commitment and authority to deal with aggressive and disruptive passengers, the study says.

According to Dr. Rosskam, "check-in workers are the logical choice to assess a variety of passenger factors associated with ground and air rage, particularly by identifying passengers who are under the influence of alcohol, drugs or exhibiting mood problems at time of check-in. As an additional benefit, such an expanded job description could also offset the repetitive and cyclical nature of some of the job tasks".

To improve check-in workers jobs, the study suggests a number of other solutions presented by risk factors, including repetitiveness, mechanical stress, posture, psycho-social stress, violence and changes in management practices. Recommendations and suggestions for workers, trade unions and management include the set-up of joint health and safety committees, preventive action, worker participation in the design of workstations and work organization, and training and developing skills to identify and prevent potentially threatening situations.

Note 1

Note 2 - Dr. Rosskam has recently authored a book Excess Baggage: Airport check-in, management practices and worker health (Baywood, New York, 2006).