New York, NY— Hazardous exposure to bodily fluids, bloodborne pathogens, unlabeled chemical cleaners, diesel emissions, temperature extremes and ear-splitting noise has put contracted airport workers at risk, according to a report released today by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. The report confirmed the many dangerous, yet preventable, working conditions that workers at JFK and LaGuardia airports have complained about for years.
“In our interviews with contracted out airport workers we found that unsafe working conditions are pervasive at JFK and LaGuardia airports,” said Charlene Obernauer, NYCOSH Executive Director. “These hazardous conditions are preventable, and contractors, airlines and airports should make it a priority to eliminate these risks for workers and passengers alike.”
The report comes amid rising fears of the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, prompting 32BJ SEIU, a union that has been working on behalf of the workers, to hold Infectious Disease training sessions for New York airport workers next week to better identify infectious disease hazards and protect against exposure and spread.
There are more than 8,600 subcontracted service workers at JFK and LaGuardia airports. NYCOSH conducted interviews with subcontracted ground crew workers exposing hazardous working conditions. NYCOSH reports that this could potentially translate into passenger safety concerns.
– Wheelchair attendants at JFK and LaGuardia say they are required to clean up the blood, urine, feces, and vomit of sick passengers. Without the proper cleaning materials or protective equipment, these workers not only face a health and safety risks. NYCOSH reports that they don’t have the cleaning equipment they need to ensure that wheelchairs are properly sanitized and clean for the next passenger.
– Aircraft cabin cleaners report being supplied with unlabeled chemical cleaning products with harsh odors and various adverse effects. “I’ll be coughing, coughing, coughing. It seemed like the more I worked, the more I’d be coughing,” says a cabin cleaner included in the report.
– Baggage Handlers say they face many hazards at work including routine exposure to diesel emissions, harsh hot and cold weather and repetitive strain injuries. “In the wintertime, we wait outside out in the open,” said a baggage carrier included in the report. “It smells like gasoline. I get headaches if I work 2-3 days in a row outside.”
The report ultimately suggests hazard assessments, worker trainings and provides recommendations for employers on ways to remedy these issues and urges employers to comply with already existing OSHA standards.
For thousands of airport workers, these changes can’t come soon enough, particularly in the wake of increased concerns over the international spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola, which recently entered the U.S. via airport. So, 32BJ SEIU has planned an Infectious Disease Awareness Training for airport cabin cleaners, terminal cleaners, and wheelchair attendants to help them be better able to identify suspect infectious disease hazards and to protect themselves and their co-workers against exposure and spread of infectious diseases at airports.
The 90-minute training, a collaboration with the SEIU Health & Education Fund and the SEIU 1199 Doctors Council, will supplement whatever current training workers now receive and encourage airport contractors, who have been invited to attend, to implement similar worker safety initiatives.
“These workers who are paid poverty wages at the airports also aren’t provided with the proper training, materials or equipment to deal with bodily fluids, blood and other hazards,” said Hector Figueroa, President of SEIU 32BJ. “These workers deserve the basic resources that would make their jobs safe for both themselves and for passengers.”
For the past two years airport workers have been fighting for higher wages, better working conditions, training, benefits and the right to join a union of their choice. There have been various wage victories for airport workers this year, but the new NYCOSH report shows there is still much work to be done.
With more than 145,000 members, 32BJ SEIU is the largest property service union in the country.