It’s where most injuries in commercial air transport happen, so cabin safety needs to be taken seriously, contributor Sue Rice writes.
Just consider for a moment that you’re at work in your office and the floor is never still. Imagine walking over to someone else’s work station for a chat, you’re carrying a freshly brewed cup of coffee and in your other hand a bunch of documents. Suddenly, the floor tips down and forward, then jerks back up so it’s slanted upwards, then it comes back to straight and level. All this in the space of maybe 10 seconds. Disconcerting? Especially when your coffee has spilled, the documents you held are strewn everywhere and you fell into a most undignified heap on the floor. That image is something that cabin crew are faced with daily. The floor of their workplace is never still.
In some isolated cases the harsh reality of turbulence can be the cause of severe injuries that leave cabin crew with life-long physical, and occasionally emotional, problems. During the daily routine of their work life however, the causes and types of potential injury suffered by cabin crew are many and varied. Causal factors can be categorised under two main headings: inflight turbulence and poor work practices (to which time constraints and fatigue are significant contributing factors).
Clear air turbulence: the angry CAT
Geophysical Research Letters is not the sort of publication that normally contains nuggets of intense interest for cabin crew safety, but ‘Global response of clear air turbulence to climate change’ by P. Williams, L. Storer & M. Joshi in the 3 October 2017 edition is a spectacular exception.
The authors describe an effort to measure and predict clear air turbulence (CAT), which they note is ‘by far the most common cause of serious injury to flight attendants’. Their prediction is gloomy: climate change will bring more CAT, and more severe CAT.
The scientists thoughtfully include a plain language summary. ‘Clear air turbulence is potentially hospitalising in flight bumpiness experienced by aircraft. Often, pilots cannot avoid it, because it is invisible to the naked eye and undetectable by onboard sensors. Previous research suggests that climate change will increase instabilities in the North Atlantic jet stream in winter, generating more clear air turbulence … We find strong increases in clear air turbulence over the entire globe and in particular, the midlatitudes, which is where the busiest flight routes are. We also find that the strongest turbulence will increase the most, highlighting the importance of improving turbulence forecasts and flight planning to limit discomfort and injuries to passengers and crew.’
Aircraft designers, manufacturers and operators need to consider a world where CAT is more frequent and severe, they say.
‘Our findings may have implications for aviation operations in the coming decades. Many of the aircraft that will be flying in the second half of the present century are currently in the design phase. It would therefore seem sensible for the airframe manufacturers to prepare for a more turbulent atmosphere, even at this early stage.’
It is almost impossible to predict the presence of CAT, although NASA has been looking to develop CAT detecting technology.
Cabin crew need to be prepared when the usually benign and safe cabin environment can suddenly resemble the stability inside a washing machine or a roller coaster that cannot only move up and down sharply, without warning, but swing/jerk sideways as well. A safe work practice is to try and ensure as many service items and loose objects as far as practicable, not in use are secured. Dependent on the severity of the turbulent event when service is in progress, the likelihood of injuries being incurred by cabin crew is far more probable than for passengers. A service trolley can weigh up to 80 kg fully laden, there are bar items, pots filled with hot beverages, galley cupboard doors open, service items unsecured on bench tops, overhead lockers open, etc. All of which is a recipe for unrestrained items to become airborne and strike an occupant. Documented incident reports have outlined how on occasion the service cart has become airborne and inflicted terrible injuries.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau has conducted research to categorise the types of injuries incurred in an analysis of in-flight passenger injuries and medical conditions.
In Australia in recent years, airline operators have moved towards the procedure of ensuring cabin crew remain secured at their stations for longer after take-off and are again seated and secured sooner than in the past for landing. For the sake of a few minutes either end of the flight and, in the interests of personal safety for cabin crew, it is a sound decision to have them seated and restrained at these times.
A stark reality
Photographic evidence of the aftermath within the cabin of a turbulent occurrence can be quite shocking. In extreme circumstances there will be holes in the units above passenger seats where heads have impacted. Overhead lockers have been broken and/or dislodged with contents strewn on seats and the floor. Holes have been made in the ceiling where either bags, cabin crew or passenger heads have struck it. Toilets have dislodged from their bases. Sidewall and ceiling panel destruction can be seen throughout the cabin. Ceiling and fixed signs have been dislodged and galley fixtures have failed to withstand the forces.
Passengers—‘keep your seat belt fastened during flight’
During flight the major reason for advising passengers to keep their seat belts fastened at all times when seated is to prevent possible injury during turbulence. Some European countries now mandate passengers must keep their seat belts fastened at all times. In Australia, more airline operators are adopting the procedure to ensure their cabin crew are also ‘strapped in’ when the fasten seat belt sign is illuminated. This is a proper workplace practice and in accordance with regulatory requirements.
Types of injuries
As a result of turbulence and a member of the cabin crew is not restrained, there are any number of ways they can be injured. At the extreme end of the spectrum, there are widely documented cases of cabin crew having received broken bones. Head injuries causing concussion; neck injuries as a result of the compression from hitting the ceiling, a side panel, a galley fixture or an armrest; and the presence of bleeding head wounds have been documented. Severe bruising goes hand-in-hand with the occurrence of turbulence. There is also the risk of internal organ injuries and soft tissue damage.
Under less severe conditions there is the ever-present risk of injuries to the back, legs, arms, shoulders and neck in an environment that is constantly moving.
Responsibility for safe work practices
On any given day there is constant stretching, lifting, pushing and pulling to move service items and passenger baggage. One particular action continually proves to be hazardous. Opening an overhead locker can present unexpected and most unpleasant surprises. When the locker is opened, thoughtlessly stowed items may fall out and injure an unprepared member of crew standing beneath the falling object. Experienced crew will place a hand under the locker door as a preventative to a projectile hitting them in the face, head, chest or shoulder.
When the fasten seat belt sign is on, or if the captain makes an announcement advising cabin crew to be seated immediately, cabin crew will do what they can to secure all loose items, dependent upon time available. Most importantly, they will secure themselves; sometimes on the floor in the aisle or sometimes in a passenger seat, whatever is most accessible and suitable in the moment.