New DOT policy promises better health and safety protections for flight attendants

[Updated 1/5/2013]

[Updated 8/25/2013]

The world’s largest labor organization for airline flight attendants— the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) —says it took four decades of work, but now its members working in airplane cabins will finally have rights and protections provided by federal OSHA.   In an on-line letter to members, the AFA-CWA calls the victory: “OSHA extended to our cabins.”

For decades AFA has pursued legal and regulatory solutions to extend OSHA safety and health protections to workers in the airline industry.  The roadblocks have been enormous, but our union kept this as a priority and through the leadership and dedicated work of our Air Safety, Health and Security Department as well as the grassroots organizing led by our Government Affairs Department and thousands of your calls to Capitol Hill, we succeeded in ensuring that OSHA standards in the cabin were included as part of the FAA reauthorization bill.

I recall hearing about the health and safety problems faced by flight attendants at a February 2010 public meeting called “OSHA Listens.”  The agency’s newly appointed assistant secretary heard testimony from dozens of witnesses on ways to improve protections for the nation’s workers.   Mr. Dinkar Mokadam spoke on behalf of the AFA-CWA’s 55,000 members who work at 22 different airlines.  He described some of the many hazards faced by flight attendants inside airplane cabins, such as exposures to toxic chemicals, communicable diseases, and excessive noise.  He explained an incident involving one flight attendant who was soaked with de-icing fluid that sprayed through the seal of a closed passenger exit door.  She worked her shift, but

“…by the time the plane landed on the other side of the country, ‘Joan’ had irritated and burning eyes, a dry throat, difficulty swallowing, and chills.  On her arrival at home, she had a severe headache, was breathless upon exertion, felt nauseous and dizzy, and had first degree burns on her neck and shouldes, and her eyelids were swollen.  ‘Joan’s’ union representative reported the event to the FAA the next day.”

Two months later when no action had yet been taken by the FAA, ‘Joan’ contacted the FAA Safety Hotline herself. Ultimately, the FAA found no evidence of a safety violation and recommended no enforcement action the airline.  Worse yet, for more than a year after the incident, Joan was unable to work.  Her employer did not pay her for any lost time and cut most of her benefits.

The AFA-CWA used ‘Joan’s example’ and others to illustrate the substandard workplace safety protections afforded to flight attendants.  Under Section 4(b) the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, OSHA is precluded from exercising its authority in workplaces that are regulated by another federal agency.   Dating back to 1975, the FAA has asserted that it was fully responsible for responding, in collaboration with the employing airline company, to the health and safety concerns of airline flight crews.  But the flight attendants’ experienced showed them that FAA did not have adequate standards to address the hazards they encountered inside aircraft cabins.   The AFA-CWA urged, cajoled, petitioned, pleaded and lobbied the Executive and Legislative branch to address this deficiency for their members.

The breakthrough finally came in language contained in the  FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which became law in February 2012. Section 829 of it, entitled “Clarification of Memorandum of Understanding with OSHA,” says:

“Not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator of the FAA shall (1) establish milestones, in consultation with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), in a report to Congress—(A) for the completion of work begun under the August 2000 memorandum of understanding between the Administrations; and (B) to address issues that need further action, as set forth in the December 2000 joint report of the Administrations; and (2) initiate development of a policy statement to set forth the circumstances in which requirements of OSHA ay be applied to crew members while working in an aircraft.”

The explanatory language in the conference committee report notes:

The conference committee believes that in initiating development of a policy statement the FAA shall consider the establishment of a coordinating body similar to the Aviation Safety and Health Joint Team established by the August 2000 memorandum of understanding that includes representatives designated by both Administrations to examine the applicability of current and future OSHA regulations; to recommend policies for facilitating the training of FAA inspectors; and to make recommendations that will govern the inspection and enforcement of safety and health standards on board aircraft in operation and all work-related environments. Any standards adopted by the FAA shall set forth clearly the circumstances under which an employer is required to take action to address occupational safety and health hazards; the measures required of an employer under the standard; and the compliance obligations of an employer under the standard.”

One November 30, the FAA proposed a new policy.  In it, FAA acknowledges that it has not adopted certain OSHA standards, such as chemical right-to-know (a.k.a. hazard communication), bloodborne pathogens and noise, but flight attendants deserve the protections afforded by those standards.  As a result, OSHA will now be able to enforce those standards for aircraft cabin crewmembers.  The new policy states:

  • FAA and OSHA will develop a memorandum of understanding to establish procedures to identify other hazards not addressed by FAA regulations, but covered by OSHA regulations;
  • FAA and OSHA will establish procedures for resolving cabin crewmember health and safety concerns, with the goal of protecting the safety and health of cabin crew members without jeopardizing aviation safety;
  • OSHA’s anti-discrimination provision under Section 11(c) of the OSH Act and the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform
    Act for the 21st Century (AIR21) apply to flight attendants; and
  • OSHA will respond to and investigate complaints or referrals about flight attendant health and safety, without the need for an inspection of the aircraft in operation;

In the AFA-CWA’s on-line letter to its members announcing the proposed policy, the union praised the Obama Administration, in particular DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and DOL Secretary Hilda Solis, for their leadership on the issue.

FAA will be publishing the new policy in the Federal Register and inviting public comment on it for 30 days.  Barring major objections from the airlines—the flight attendants’ employers—-the new protections will be implemented early in 2013.

[Update (12/12/12): The FAA draft policy was published in the Federal Register on December 7, 2012, and the comment period ends on January 7, 2012.]

[Updated (1/5/2012): The FAA extended the deadline until January 22, 2013 for submitting public comments on the new policy.]

[Updated (8/25/2013): The final policy was issued August 22, 2013.]

 


 

 

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