Flight attendants who have OSHA protections on the ground -- but lose them the minute they board a plane -- may soon retain those protections in the sky.
In a move that may also benefit airline passengers, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Friday they plan to share responsibility for the flight attendants' safety on aircraft. Flight attendants would, for the first time, be able to report workplace injuries and illnesses to OSHA, ending a 37-year era in which the FAA claimed sole jurisdiction for cabin safety.
Flight attendants applauded the proposal, saying it would not negatively affect passenger service, but instead would benefit passengers because they share the same environment. OSHA said areas of concern include exposure to noise and blood-borne pathogens and access to information on hazardous chemicals.
The change would open the doors for OSHA to investigate complaints about air quality in aircraft, a condition sometimes referred to as "sick airplane syndrome."
"This is a validation that the aircraft cabin is our workplace," said Veda Shook, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. "Any enhancement for flight attendants would also be an enhancement for passengers."
As an example, Shook said, some airlines provide both training and equipment to deal with bleeding passengers, while others do not. Flight attendants who are not provided equipment or training could enlist OSHA's help to change airline practices and policies, she said.
A spokesman for Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said that while workplace safety is a top priority for airlines, the current FAA oversight is effective. "A4A believes that expanding the regulatory process across multiple agencies is unnecessary, creates conflicting regulatory authority and a host of logistical problems throughout the industry," Victoria Day said.
The FAA and OSHA said the unusual nature of flight attendant's workspace necessitates a system of cooperative oversight. When addressing OSHA noise concerns, for instance, several solutions might require the addition of thicker noise panels, which would affect aircraft design and safety.
Under federal law, flight attendants are not currently covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The act also excludes employees regulated by another federal agency -- for example, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Coast Guard -- as well as family farms and the self-employed.
"The policy announced today with the FAA will not only enhance the health and safety of flight attendants by connecting them directly with OSHA, but will by extension improve the flying experience of millions of airline passengers," U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said in a prepared statement.
Friday's announcement opens up a 30-day public comment period on the proposed policy.