AP/Nathan Denette
A flight attendant wears a mask as she
arrives at the Toronto airport from Mexico

Who Is Protecting Flight Attendants and Travel Industry Workers Against Swine Flu?

May 01, 2009 06:40 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
Many travel workers are in constant contact with people from regions affected by the swine flu outbreak. As the WHO raises the pandemic alert level for swine flu, protection for travel workers remains minimal.

TSA, FAA and Airlines Accused of Not Protecting Transportation Staff

Both the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and the American Federation of Government Employees are looking to protect the workers who come in contact with passengers from around the world, and who may be exposed to the swine flu. The flight attendants and Transportation Security Officers who belong to these unions are not being properly protected, the unions say.

The AFA-CWA has requested that the FAA institute passenger screening methods to help prevent the spread of swine flu, and to protect members of the union who work in close contact with travelers in areas with known outbreaks of the virus. Flight attendants want to be allowed to wear protective masks and gloves if they see fit, as well as to be able to take sick leave without losing allotted sick time.

A representative of the Air Transport Association said that it will wait for orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before employing any further flu prevention methods than are currently being used. At present, the CDC is only recommending basic prevention measures when no swine flu symptoms are present in passengers or crew—covering nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, washing hands regularly, staying home if sick—and only recommending the use of gloves and face masks or respirators when in contact with a sick passenger or crew member.

The American Federation of Government Employees has also requested that measures be taken by the Transportation Security Administration to protect its workforce of Transportation Security Officers. The letter written by the AFGE to the TSA requests that any Transportation Security Officer be provided with gloves, hand sanitizer and a proper respirator if requested, that TSOs be allowed testing for swine flu, and that if any TSOs become sick with swine flu, that they be granted administrative leave rather than using sick days.

And while airline workers in the United States may feel as if not enough is being done to prevent the spread of swine flu, The International Transport Workers’ Union says that crew members for Mexicana, Aeromexico and Mexican regional airlines (all based in Mexico, the country hardest hit by the swine flu so far) came to an agreement that flight crews can wear facemasks and gloves whenever they feel at risk of transmitting the virus.

Background: Occupational hazards of flight attendants—SARS, Avian Flu, toxic fumes

Flight attendants are one of few groups of workers in the United States not protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; instead the safety of airline workers is under the jurisdiction of the FAA. As recently as February of this year, the CWA and other flight attendant advocates have attempted to put the workplace safety of flight attendants under OSHA, to better protect the safety of airline workers.

During their time in the air, cabin crews are at risk of exposure to a number of airborne diseases as well as other health hazards associated with flying. Deep vein thrombosis, tuberculosis, avian flu, SARS, fumes from the aircraft contaminating cabin air and now swine flu are among the hazards crews face, in addition to the risk of injury from turbulence or emergency landing situations.

Just as the CWA has recently requested emergency orders for help in preventing the spread of swine flu, during the 2003 outbreak of SARS, the AFA-CWA Air Safety, Health, and Security Department issued two letters to the FAA requesting similar procedures. The 2003 requests wanted airlines to be required to provide flight crews with proper safety masks and gloves, and allow crews to wear masks and gloves without any disciplinary measures being taken against them. They also requested that airlines create passenger screening methods to prevent the spread of SARS. The FAA responded by recommending that the flight attendants merely adhere to the WHO and CDC guidelines to help prevent spread of the illness, and offered no additional help.

Similar requests have also been made by the CWA to the FAA for better cabin air quality guidelines to prevent inhalation of fumes before takeoff and during the flight. In December of 2008, fumes from a chemical used to de-ice planes caused several passengers and crewmembers aboard a Seattle airplane to be taken to the hospital.

Reference: Protecting yourself from the swine flu during air travel

Mark Gendreau, a senior staff physician and vice chairman of emergency medicine at Lahey Clinic in Massachusetts, and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, provides tips for preventing the spread of swine flu while traveling on an airplane. His suggestions include bringing a face mask for yourself and an extra one for anyone around you who appears to be sick, turning on your own overhead air vent to low and directing the air flow right in front of your face, and also practicing good hygiene by washing your hands or using hand sanitizer before eating or drinking and after using the bathroom or getting anything from your overhead compartment.

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