In our fifth month of the pandemic, many employees in workplaces lacking enforced social distancing protocols are still struggling to avoid being infected with the coronavirus or possibly infecting others. Airline workers are among them.

Because an airplane is necessarily a closed environment in flight, pilots, flight attendants, customer service and fleet service agents are exposed to passengers and the airborne bacteria and viruses they bring on board. Baggage handlers work in confined indoor spaces, which also causes a health risk. Considering that many carriers of the coronavirus are asymptomatic and do not know they have it and are spreading it, how can airline workers avoid infecting others, if they themselves are asymptomatic carriers? How can airline workers possibly avoid contagion from others? 

Airline workers are still reporting to work because air travel has been deemed “essential.” These workers have a right to a safe work environment. No one should have to put their life and possibly the lives of their families or others at risk by doing their job. Schwarz & Schwarz represents those who have been critically injured on the job. If you or a loved one have experienced life-altering complications due to contracting COVID-19 at the workplace, give us a call.

Coronavirus Related Deaths of Airline Workers

According to the LA Times, fifteen airline workers died from COVID-19-related illnesses between April 5th and 13th. Because there is no central tracking of causes of airline workers’ deaths, there may be many more since then. 

Airline workers have been reluctant to speak out due to company policy regarding communication with the media. Some workers have claimed that airlines have required workers who think they might have COVID-19 from telling their co-workers.

Shortages of Personal Protection Equipment

Since March, airlines report that they are providing cabin crews with masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and wipes, but airline workers complain that the provision of PPE is inconsistent flight-to-flight. Many have even been forced to bring their own PPE to work in order to protect themselves.

Recently Delta Airlines reported that it is testing every employee for the coronavirus, and instituting mandatory PPE use. In a nod to social distancing protocols, Delta has blocked, and will continue to block, the middle seat from use.

Every airline should do the same, but it may be too little too late for most who have continued to work despite the risk of infection. The only alternative for asymptomatic workers is to take unpaid leave, which is unrealistic for most.

Cabin Crews Fear They Are Spreading Coronavirus 

Feeling forced to fly in order to keep their jobs, cabin crews fear they are spreading the illness like “bees spreading pollen.” As of April 8, at least 100 flight attendants for American Airlines had tested positive for COVID-19, the flight attendants’ union reported. Because symptoms take up to 14 days after infection to arise, untold numbers of passengers and coworkers were put at risk for infection.

PPE and Protocols for Airline Workers Recommended by the CDC

The Center for Disease Control has recommended that cabin crews take the following five steps to minimize contagion:

  1. Regularly And Thoroughly Wash Hands

Using soap and hot water, lather your hands by rubbing them briskly together, then be sure to scrub the backs of the hands, between fingers, and under fingernails. Wash for at least 20 seconds.

  1. Identify Sick And Potentially Infectious Travelers

While taking passengers’ temperature prior to travel has not yet been implemented, there are signs it may be coming. In the meantime, be sure to observe each passenger for the following signs of COVID-19:

  • Fever
  • Skin rash
  • Labored breathing
  • Cough
  • Confusion
  • Bruising or bleeding, not caused by physical injury
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting, not caused by air sickness
  • Headache

Federal law requires that airlines report death or illness on domestic flights and international flights arriving in the U.S. to the CDC. 

If cabin crew suspects a passenger is ill, minimize exposure to that person by:

  • Designating one attendant to interact with him or her; 
  • Providing a plastic bag for disposal of tissues, air sickness bags, and anything else potentially contaminated, and; 
  • Locating the passenger 6 feet from other passengers when possible.
  1. Assume That All Body Fluids Are Infectious And Take Precautions

Any passenger or coworker could be carrying the coronavirus and not know it, because they are asymptomatic. If you are going to be exposed to bodily fluids, take the precautions of frequently washing hands, avoid touching your face, and wear PPE.

If a passenger is persistently coughing, offer them a facemask. If a passenger is bleeding, offer towels or napkins and a bag to put them in when used. If there is more than one bathroom, designate that bathroom for a possible sick passenger’s sole use to protect others.

  1. Wear and Use The Recommended PPE for Covid-19

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for COVID-19 may include any of the following:

  • Facemask
  • Faceshield
  • Disposable Gloves
  • Sanitary wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Biohazard waste bag
  • Sanitary cleanser and disposable applicators
  1. Clean and Disinfect Contaminated Areas

First, the flight crew must properly dispose of contaminated or potentially contaminated items.  Then, they must notify the cleaning crew of areas that need more than a routine cleaning, because of possible contamination by bodily fluids. The bathroom used by the sick passenger should be thoroughly sanitized. All materials used to clean potentially contaminated items or areas must be disposed of as bio-hazardous material.

OSHA Coronavirus Guidance

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers guidance on avoiding infection by both blood-borne pathogens and how to clean surfaces after possible contamination.  Every airline should have OSHA-recommended protocols and procedures in place and comply with OSHA’s PPE requirements.

Airline workers are entitled to training in procedures to minimize exposure to the coronavirus,  and to training in response to possible exposure on the job. All training is employer-specific, though should follow CDC guidelines. Airline workers are also entitled to sufficient and effective PPE. 

If your airline does not have procedures in place or has not offered training in how to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, inform your union representative. If you don’t have the recommended PPE on every flight you work, inform your union rep. Our firm has helped unions get the training and protection their members need, and is ready to step in should the airlines fail in their duty to you to protect you from COVID-19.