United Airlines/OSHA Settlement In Newark Airport Case May Reduce Injuries For All Baggage Handlers

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has reached an agreement with United Airlines that will eliminate a series of hazardous conditions in the carrier’s baggage-handling operation at Newark Airport, and could potentially trigger ergonomic improvements for baggage handlers at airports throughout the country.

OSHA, a division of the Department of Labor, says this week’s agreement settles a lawsuit against United, which also agreed to pay a $7,000 fine.

“We’ve got some ecstatic people here in Newark,” said Bill Gula, president of International Association of Machinists Local 914, which represents about 3,000 United employees including about 2,000 baggage handlers. The union worked with OSHA to identify workplace issues and to gather workers to testify in an August hearing.

“Strains and muscle issues and tears seem to be common here,” Gula said, noting that the remedies United agreed to “are a large undertaking for a company, but we all work here.”

OSHA said that between 2011 and January 2015, United baggage handlers had filed at least 622 injury reports. OSHA regulations require certain employers including United to report serious occupation injuries and illnesses.

“We are pleased that United Airlines has recognized that employers have a responsibility to protect workers from the many hazards that can cause musculoskeletal injuries,” said Robert Kulick, OSHA regional administrator in New York, in a prepared statement.

“With this agreement, United will take the steps necessary to prevent its employees from suffering unnecessary injuries due to its deficient baggage-handling operation,” he said.

Although the agreement does not currently apply beyond United’s Newark operations, it could be precedent-setting.

“This settlement will have long-term safety implications for the baggage-handling industry,” said Jeffrey Rogoff, DOL regional solicitor in New York, in a prepared statement. “As one of the world’s leading airlines, United Airlines is setting a workplace safety standard that other airlines will be compelled to follow.”

DOL spokeswoman Leni Uddyback-Fortson said the settlement “demonstrates the feasibility of measures to eliminate or reduce the stressors that cause musculoskeletal injuries at similar facilities.

“The settlement sets a powerful example for other employers in the industry about reasonable steps they can take to protect their workers from known hazards,” she said.

A United spokeswoman said, ““The safety of our employees and customers is our top priority. We are reviewing our ergonomic practices in order to further improve the work environment for our employees.”

Gula said IAM welcomes the possibility that settlement conditions could be broadly extended.

“We would absolutely welcome safer workplaces,” he said. “We are all about protecting our members – that is why we are unionists in a country where it’s a little tough.

“Setting standards throughout the baggage handling industry would be advantageous at any airline {and} if OSHA is saying the settlement is precedent setting for the industry, then certainly that could benefit baggage handlers across the country,” Gula said.

In the Newark case, OSHA inspectors followed up on the injury reports with an inspection at Newark airport baggage handling facilities.

They found five hazardous conditions, OSHA said in a prepared statement. These included exposure to repeated bending, lifting and reaching hazards due to the placement of posts in front of conveyor belts; conveyor belt placement that required employees to bend over or reach overhead in order to access and lift baggage; manual loading and unloading of baggage that is gate-checked in the regional terminal and prolonged loading and unloading of baggage in confined areas.

Additionally, inspectors even found that the use of hand-held scanners at the cargo bay entrance “exposed employees to the hazards of repeated twisting, pushing, pulling and lateral motions with the arm extended from the body,” OSHA said.

In the settlement, United agreed to install mechanical conveyer belts in the regional terminal; to retain an expert to evaluate potential repetitive stress or injury risks in Newark baggage handling operations; to follow the expert’s recommendations, and to form a safety committee composed of the expert and management and employee representatives.

This article was first published in Forbes.

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