July 29, 2011 The Pump Handle 3Comment

by Rebecca Reindel

Holidays are interesting times of the year. Many of us fill our schedule with time to visit friends and family across the nation, and even across the globe. When our plans involve air travel, many of us line-up alongside the baggage carousel station while we wait for our prized possessions to roll out onto the conveyor belt. We are eager to see if our luggage made the trip in the same condition as we checked it.

On a recent trip from Denver to Washington DC, I deplaned and headed to retrieve my belongings from baggage claim. I patiently waited for the blinking light and buzzer to announce my flight’s luggage arrival on the assigned carousel. I noticed a young man standing next to a gentleman in a wheelchair. This worker was clearly there to assist the handicapped man retrieve his luggage when it appeared on the belt. The alarm sounded and the carousel belts began to move. Luggage began to appear through a center spout and drop onto the circular belt. It was the typical collection of rectangular-shaped suitcases, odd-shaped equipment, and gift boxes traveling up and out of the magic spout. Several car seats for infants tumbled out and on top of each other, creating a small pile-up. Next a strap from someone’s luggage caught in the junction of two conveyor belts. It was yanked from its original place and left hanging from the junction at the top of the spout.

Panicked, blank stares were abundant in the crowd, but eye rolls and sighs mainly emanated from one, tall woman who glared at the worker assigned to the disabled gentleman. Her callously mannered, silent-mouthing toward the worker of “do something” caught my attention.

The worker’s face displayed similar shock, but for a different reason. He was being directed by several crowd members to climb on top of the moving conveyor to unclog the pile up and remove the strap. They were expecting him to hold the top ledge of the spout while moving his feet to keep up with the mobile belt and stepping over luggage as it passed underneath him. This was not an easy task—and actually quite dangerous. Some in the crowd were disappointed by the worker’s reluctance to act. One person responded to the situation by foolishly climbing atop the belt in his own attempt to unravel the situation.

The assistance worker looked frightened at the spectators’ glares. Maybe he was afraid that he would succumb to the crowd’s pressure. Or maybe he was afraid that if he didn’t, someone would complain about him and he’d be reprimanded for failing to take care of the baggage carousel mishap. He was clearly not trained for the job of conveyor-belt trouble-shooter. His assigned duty was identifying and retrieving the gentleman’s silver piece of luggage with a red identification tag. He obviously had as little experience with moving conveyor belts as those in the crowd. None of them knew about or noticed the On/Off switch hidden under the conveyor belt. It was directly below the location of the pile-up and tangled strap.

Why were a majority of the bystanders unwilling to climb onto the moving belt, yet expected the worker to place himself in a very dangerous position? Why did the worker get blamed for not performing duties outside of his job, especially in a non-emergency situation? Would the worker be blamed if the passenger was injured climbing onto the belt? Does a paycheck and uniform automatically assume an acceptable risk?

I believe that expecting the worker to accept the risk for an unassigned and untrained job was an unreasonable expectation by the crowd. Unfortunately, it often takes the public to witness an injury or something catastrophic to happen in order for people to learn about safety on the job.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, transportation workers reported 200,000 cases of non-fatal occupational injuries in 2009. Their incidence rate (5.0 per 100 full-time workers) was 1.5 times the overall rate for the service-providing industry (3.3), exhibiting characteristics of a high-hazard industry, relative to all occupations for both public and private sectors.

In light of Cal/OSHA’s recent update to the state’s Injury and Illness Prevention Program and talk of a similar initiative at the federal level, systemic prevention is playing a larger role in the OHS field than it has ever before. But convincing many to adopt preventive measures to reduce injuries is a challenge because we live in a larger culture that instead prefers risky behaviors.

With the proper safety training, this worker would have known this request was not his responsibility and would have known how to appropriately respond to the crowd pressure. At a minimum, he would have been informed of the emergency shutoff switches.

This incident did not result in any injuries because I spoke up. I asked the worker not to jump on the belt and requested that the rest of us wait it out for the conveyor belt to stop. Within a few minutes it did so. Mine was just a simple reminder to use common sense, and a plea to save a worker from public humiliation and being forced into a dangerous situation.

Whether plane, train, bus, taxi, ferry, or another industry, workers are behind the services we rely on daily. Regulation and training have large room for improvement to protect workers, but safety advocates, health professionals and others can do a better job of showcasing and advocating safe behaviors to the public, in public.

Don’t let a luggage strap ruin your travels and don’t let your impatience harm a worker. There is always a safe option. Choose it. And let others know why you did.

Rebecca L. Reindel attended George Washington University for her Masters of Science and Masters of Public Health. She participated in the Occupational Health Internship Program in 2008 working with New York City taxi drivers. She currently is employed by the Federal government; this post does not necessarily represent the views of her agency.

3 thoughts on “Worker safety does not take a holiday, public perceptions of worker safety risks

  1. Based on my travel experience, I would say one of the main culprits here is impatience, which is rampant in airports and also throughout our society. It seems destined to get worse.
    Impatience and rushing are a very common root cause of incidents at my workplace. I’m not sure how you successfully train against rushing. I suppose constant reinforcement with JSAs and Stop Cards would help, but it is a battle we’ll continue to fight constantly.

    Thanks for helping to protect this helper, and a great post!

  2. Unsafetv, I agree. Impatience is the culprit. When one is impatient he/she is more likely to blame and coerce others to perform in risky behavior in the example above.

    Rebecca, nice post.

  3. Wow, great post! And thank you for both speaking up and reminding others to speak up. I think so often we let social awkwardness prevent us from doing the right thing.

    I’m a union organizer for a nurses’ union, so I see occupational injuries every day. Lately we’ve been working on the issue of workplace violence because health care workers are routinely attacked by patients and families. Often when a nurse calls the police she is told, “That’s just part of your job.” The idea that people check their basic rights at the door of their job is rampant and must be challenged.

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