This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

When decent work takes flight: Safe work in airports as an example of making decent work a local reality

Frankfurt Airport is one of the largest in the world. To manage growing international competition and increasing record traffic, it has begun an 8 billion Euro expansion of its take off and landing capacities, which will take place over the next 10 years. The project is expected to create some 25,000 new jobs, but also raises environmental and social issues. One of these is how to guarantee a safe and healthy working place for old and new staff members. ILO Online reports.

Article | 21 September 2007

FRANKFURT AIRPORT, Germany (ILO Online) – This huge bustling and sprawling airport billed as “Germany’s gateway to the world” has often evoked passions as well as protests throughout its history. So it may not be so surprising that it now even has its own song.

With lines like “Baby if we try, we can ride across the sky” the airport is clearly evoking unlimited opportunities and growth as it continues to soar at or near the top of the ranking of the world’s busiest airports.

But what about the 70,000 airline employees, ticket and ramp agents, baggage handler and other with more earthbound concerns? The body movements, postures, repetitions and strains required to lift, lower, push, pull, or otherwise move passenger baggage and perform other duties can create potentially serious ergonomic hazards for a range of workers, according to ILO safety and health expert Gerd Albracht.

“Agents who work in the baggage make-up room spend long hours on their feet. They must move baggage from conveyors to carts and baggage containers for transport to the plane. Conditions in the make-up room can be particularly stressful during peak times when baggage flow rates are at their highest”, he explains.

According to a report of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the United States, the injury and illness rate for airport screeners was 19.4 per cent in 2004 while the average for US workers overall was 5.5 per cent.

Controls can help reduce or eliminate make-up room injuries when using state of the art baggage sorting systems as they are used in Frankfurt airport. They are part of a new safety and health offensive by Fraport, the owner and operator of Frankfurt airport.

Though Fraport succeeded in reducing the number of annual accidents per 1000 persons from 76 to 42 between 1991 and 2003, the company’s safety and health managers were confronted with a certain stagnation after 1998 which stubbornly resisted any further improvements in accident rates.

To counter this effect, Fraport launched its new prevention system RUSH (Reduzierung von Unfällen durch Systematisches Handeln: Reducing accidents through systematic action) in 2004. The aim was to reduce the annual number of accidents by 50 per cent, which would result in a cost savings of some 4 million Euros every year.

As a first success, Fraport was able to reduce accidents by 13 per cent and working hours lost by 35 per cent between 2004 and 2005. What’s more, good safety and health records pay: lower accident rates at Fraport reduced costs by over 42 million Euros between 1992 and 2007.

“Integrated occupational safety and health systems like RUSH not only reduce workers suffering but can also cut the amount of time an employee is away from work, reduce the employer’s costs and ease employees’ hassles with worker compensation claims. It also means fewer times when security checkpoints or baggage claims are short-staffed”, explains Dieter Arnold, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Department at Fraport.

As an enterprise with activities at 60 locations worldwide, Fraport decided earlier this month to join the UN “Global Compact” to contribute to a more sustainable and fair global economy. The Global Compact is a framework for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies with 10 universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment and anti-corruption.

Safety and health for airport staff has also been a key part of the agenda of an international conference organized by the ILO during the largest safety and health exhibition in the world at Messe Düsseldorf in Germany. The Conference Making Decent Work a Global Goal and a National Reality was held from 18-20 September and was attended by over 200 participants from 65 countries. It focussed on prevention and social security and the use of the supply chain to improve safety and health at work, with particular reference to airport staff.

During the conference, Herbert Mai, member of the Board of Management and Labour Director at Fraport called for a “more comprehensive cooperation on the national and international level between all those concerned with making transport processes safe” to reduce extensive and sometimes unnecessary costs.

Other key themes discussed at the conference included strategies for promoting decent work at international at international, national and enterprise levels, good governance at work and the reform of labour inspectorates. High-ranking officials from governments, social partners and international organizations also took part in a round table discussion at the end of the conference.

In her closing statement, Dr. Sameera Al-Tuwaijri, Director of the ILO’s International Programme for Safety and Health at Work and the Environment, emphasised the importance of high-level political commitment to implementing international standards for decent work. In particular, she called for up-to-date legislation and for the modernisation and proper resourcing of labour inspectorates. A culture of prevention was vital in reducing accidents and ill-health at work, and all stakeholders needed to be involved in wider partnerships to make decent work a national reality.