Torqued: Safety Culture Matters More than Ever in Aviation

 - December 1, 2020, 8:29 AM

As I write, a number of events surrounding the wearing—or not wearing—of masks and social distancing, particularly at large indoor events, have dominated the news. Some occurred at nationally recognized landmarks but many occurred in various communities across the U.S. What these events had in common was that they resulted in many people becoming infected with the coronavirus, and they were termed “super spreader” events. Without getting into a political debate about masks—but to be clear, I wear them myself in line with CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19—I am interested in the various workplaces identified in media reports. Of particular interest to me were reports that employees who wanted to wear masks in some of these workplaces were discouraged or outright forbidden from doing so, putting their health and the health of others at risk. Of course, I don’t know the particulars of any given workplace situation but photos of some of these events made clear that wearing masks and social distancing were the exception and far from the rule.

Reading about these events, my thoughts were with the employees working in these places. Those who wanted to wear masks but also wanted to keep their jobs were forced to choose between a safety precaution and a culture that downplayed that safety risk. And then there were likely those employees who may have misunderstood the safety risks because they weren’t required to take precautions. These scenarios are all too familiar in my experience in aviation, where protection of employees from the risk of injuries is not always taken as seriously as it should be, including by the employees themselves. A safety culture that focuses on preventing employee injuries has always been important in aviation, although sometimes given more lip service than actual practice. Unfortunately, some companies over the years have seemed to support safety practices in theory but not so much when it means taking a delay.

For those of us who have worked in aviation for decades, we all knew places where safety—for the flying public and employees—was taken seriously and places where the “just get it done” attitude prevailed, even if we didn’t have a name for those attitudes. Even before safety management systems became the norm throughout aviation and the term “safety culture” gained prominence, there were places where a culture of protecting employees from injuries was standard practice and places where taking appropriate protective measures was more or less actively discouraged, especially when it affected the bottom line.

Some commonly ignored safety precautions have more serious consequences on employees than others. For many years after we knew that exposure to aircraft engine noise on the ramp had long-term effects on employees, many employers refused to provide ear protection and, in cases where ear protectors were provided, many employees failed to wear them, perhaps not understanding the long-term consequences. Many supervisors allowed this practice to go unchallenged. The failure to enforce this particular safety precaution is one I and many of my coworkers from those years have lived to regret as our hearing reflects decades of unprotected exposure to engine and other loud airport noises. Even today, I occasionally see workers on the ramp without ear protection, although it is now more the exception than the rule of years past.

As a mechanic, other safety precautions were also not always adhered to at places where I worked, such as wearing a safety harness when performing tasks at dangerous heights. In some places those harnesses weren’t even made available to employees and in other places, employees would regularly disregard those safety measures for expediency without fear that their supervisors would call them out on it. Often, if a mechanic was on the ramp and the safety gear was stored in a distant hangar, the decision would be made to forego the safety equipment. Supervisor attitudes in many of these places was to turn a blind eye as long as the airplane was fixed for an on-time departure. Making the schedule seemed to be all that mattered in some of these places, with unfortunate consequences at times.

While exposure to noise without ear protection had no immediate consequences on employee health or safety, as the damage usually only occurs from exposure over time, some failures to use protective gear did have immediate serious consequences. On more than one occasion, I saw mechanics working on aircraft wings without taking proper safety precautions, slipping off and injuring themselves. While in my days on the ramp these were DC-9s with wings not that high off the ground, the people who fell off suffered a range of injuries, including broken bones. Using chemical cleaners—for example, to clean the landing gear—is another area where employees would often neglect to put on protective gear. It takes time, the gear makes you hot and sweaty, and often you can get away with not donning it without any negative consequences. But once in a while you would see the burnt red complexion of a mechanic who had gotten blowback on his face from the chemicals, and he would be lucky if he didn’t have lasting damage to his eyes.

Today, as the aviation industry reels from the impacts of Covid-19, the pressure on employees to save time and money is greater than ever. But promoting a safety culture for the protection of employees, as well as passengers, is also more important than ever. Passengers are closely observing how compliant airline workers—gate agents, flight attendants, pilots, mechanics, and cleaners who board their aircraft—are with wearing masks, a simple practice to prevent the spread of the virus. And people are calling out on social media airlines and employees who don’t comply, complete with video evidence of whatever transgressions they record. Now is a good time to recommit to safety precautions for employees and promote a safety culture that protects employees, as well as passengers.