The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has launched an investigation into charges of illegal violations of health and safety standards brought forward by more than 50 airport workers. These workers are employed by contractors hired by various airlines to serve passengers at our airport. The mass complaint details numerous violations, such as exposure to hazardous industrial chemicals, lack of training on safely handling bodily fluids, insufficient and inadequate protective gear, and violations of basic standards of human dignity.
Airport workers serve with professionalism and pride, struggling to do the best job they can for Sea-Tac passengers while lacking appropriate training, equipment, and safety. Seeing it as a responsibility to the flying public, airport workers filed the more than 100-page complaint because the longstanding issues of health, safety, and dignity at work were not being addressed when raised with their employers or the airlines over the past year.
In order to ensure L&I can conduct a thorough investigation of these complaints, airport workers are calling for all responsible parties to cooperate completely with state investigators, including:
- Alaska Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and the other airlines whose passengers are served by these workers;
- The Port of Seattle, the public agency responsible for overseeing conditions at our airport;
- DGS, Air Serv, ASIG, Bags Inc., and the other airline contractors that do business at Sea-Tac.
Health and safety violations documented by cabin cleaners
Workers hired to clean aircraft cabins for Alaska, United, Delta, and other major carriers by contractors Air Serv and DGS charged serious health and safety violations, including:
Exposure to hazardous industrial cleaning chemicals
“I get one rag to clean the planes and I must dip it into the disinfectant ‘polysphere’ for my normal cleaning. But if I have to remove gum or scuff marks then I have to use the adhesive and gum remover product. When I pour that onto the rag with the disinfectant agent, the mixed product immediately dissolves my gloves. It’s so strong that it creates bubbles in the plastic on the seat trays of the plane.”
“The foam burns when it gets into our eyes and noses, but Air Serv does not provide goggles or face masks. Sometimes, after cleaning six or seven planes, my whole face becomes swollen, I have difficulty swallowing, and my nose bleeds.”
Exposure to bodily fluids and sharps/medical wastes
“I have found feces and other bodily fluids while cleaning; I have not received any training on what to do if that happens. It is the same with needles.”
“I am especially worried when I have to clear out the trash chute in the airplane bathrooms. Don’t ask me why, but there is feces, urine, and blood in those chutes all the time. There can also be sharp things like glass. To clear the chute, we push it all into the garbage below [with our hands]. This always makes me nervous.”
“We find blood and vomit all the time, but just use more paper towels and our normal spray to clean them up. We don’t have any spare gloves to protect us when we do this, and have no way to protect ourselves from bodily fluids. There is no special training or procedure that we follow to clean blood or vomit.”
“Once a passenger had died on a plane I was cleaning. Blood from his body was on the seat, floor, and carpet. We had to clean this up with a mask and with no adequate gloves.”
No access to proper gloves, goggles, and other protective equipment
“I’ve been too scared to ask for protective equipment because the Air Serv manager gets nasty when people ask for things.”
“We’re supposed to get one pair of gloves for each plane we clean, but some tear up on the first wipe – so we end up not having enough gloves.”
“I get headaches each day from the noise. My manager has ear plugs while we workers do not.”
“Our gloves are very quickly eaten by the cleaning products.”
Limited access to toilets
Workers report having severely limited or no access to toilets during their shifts. They are not allowed to use bathrooms on the planes and report having trouble getting permission from their managers before being allowed to use public bathrooms in the terminal.
Unpaid work and denial of legally required breaks
Many workers reported being ordered by supervisors to rush from plane to plane with inadequate staffing to get the job done safely and completely in the time permitted. Few report being allowed to take the rest breaks that are required under the law. And many state they have been pressured to work off the clock before the start of their scheduled shifts.
Health and safety violations documented by passenger services workers
Workers who help elderly and disabled passengers move through the airport are employed largely by airline contractors Bags, Inc. and Air Serv. They charged serious health and safety violations, including:
Unsafe procedures for handling bodily fluids
“I have had passengers urinate and defecate in the wheelchair I use to transport them. When this happened I had to go to the nearest restroom and improvise a solution with napkins and bathroom soap. We don’t have any equipment issued to us by Bags, Inc. to protect us and our clients in this kind of situation. After these incidents, I have had to continue to use the same chair that had been soiled to pick up more passengers. We don’t have anything to do a deep clean of the chairs beyond hand soap, and so have to just go for the next person.”
“I have no gloves or spray to use so I would clean it with my hands in the restroom. I just watched a video from United for customer service and it only explained how and where to pick up passengers but nothing about safety.”
Insufficient training on passenger safety
“Passengers having incontinence accidents in the wheelchair does happen, especially on inbound flights. When accidents happen, we don’t have anything provided to us that helps us to sanitize the wheelchair for the next passengers.”
“I have been at the airport for 12 years. During that time I have encountered a few medical emergencies with my passengers. Because I hadn’t been trained on how to manage this circumstance or deal with the disabled, I am left to guess for myself.”
Lack of personal protective equipment
“I don’t have gloves. If there is a spill or an incident with a customer, then I don’t have any materials provided to help me respond to it.”
“I have no gloves, masks, or any other safety tool to deal with an incident involving bodily fluids.”
Numerous workers reported that managers required them to work without clocking in, and many believe this is an attempt to take advantage of their rights.
Health and safety violations documented by fuelers
Workers who ensure planes are fueled up for departure from Sea-Tac that work for airline contractor ASIG charged serious health and safety violations, including:
Lack of personal protective equipment
“I was re-fueling a luggage tug. The fuel rate and pressure was too high and the gasoline shot back in my face and came into contact with my eyes. The truck in operation had no eye wash station, nor were there any stations in the area.”
Hazardous equipment used to fuel jets and other equipment
“On one vehicle, the nozzles have no latch. It can hit the pavement and cause sparking.”
“The PTO override that prevents the truck from moving accidentally while fueling was not working. Maintenance acknowledged the problem but did not take the truck out of service.”
“I went to start a fuel truck with my foot on brake. When the truck started the brake pedal went to the floor. The brake should not go to the floor — this means there are no brakes.”
“I was working on a stationary cart that was leaking Jet-A fuel out of the place where the hose comes off the cart. It’s not supposed to do that.”
Denial of legally required breaks
Workers on some shifts report often not being granted regular breaks in violation of the law. Many have stated that access to water and bathrooms is rare, and that workers who raise questions about these violations of health and safety standards are told to simply “deal with it.”
Exposure to hazardous chemicals and cross-contamination
The employer provides no facilities for fuelers to safely wash uniforms that become soiled with Jet fuel A, the fuel used by commercial aircraft. Repeated exposure to Jet fuel A can cause skin and eye irritation and other health problems. Workers report they have to clean their fuel-soiled uniforms at home, in the same machines used by other members of their families.