Ground control

From high-voltage systems to irate customers, airport workers face many hazards outside and inside the terminal

On Oct. 27, 2011, a Northern Thunderbird Air Beechcraft departed from Vancouver International Airport destined for Kelowna, B.C. About 15 minutes after takeoff, the plane diverted back to Vancouver because of an oil leak. But when the aircraft was about 300 feet above ground level, it suddenly banked left and pitched nose-down just outside the airport fence. 

The plane crashed and caught fire, killing the two pilots and seriously injuring the seven passengers on board.

At the time of the incident, members of the Vancouver Airport Authority’s emergency services team — who are trained as aircraft rescue firefighters and first responders — rushed to the scene. 

“Their training kicked in and they got to the location and delivered their payload of foam to minimize any fires, and they proceeded with Richmond Fire-Rescue to extract the passengers,” says Dan Strand, manager of health and safety at the Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA) in Richmond, B.C., adding the emergency responders also worked closely with the BC Ambulance Service and the RCMP. 

In addition to providing emergency services, airport authority workers are responsible for customer service, maintenance, engineering and operations at airports across the country. With Canadian airports getting busier every year — 12 of the 16 busiest airports reported an increase in passenger traffic in 2013 — authorities need to make sure they are protecting their workers from the variety of hazards they face. But doing so is becoming an increasingly solitary task.

Previously, all airports in Canada were regulated under Transport Canada. In 1992 the airport authorities model was born. One of the issues that arose from this change is that airport authorities can operate in silos and there is a lack of information-sharing, says Dave Clark, regional vice-president, Pacific, of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees (UCTE) in Vancouver.

 “If there was an injury at one airport, we could see the trend across Canada through our health and safety meetings with Transport Canada,” he says. “Even though it is the same equipment, same issues, (now) information is not flowing across all airports.”

Noise exposure

Airport authorities need to ensure they have programs in place to protect their workers from high levels of noise. Under the Canada Labour Code (CLC) — which regulates airport authorities — employers are required to do a noise hazard assessment of the workplace. 

The maximum permitted steady noise level for a full eight-hour shift is 87 decibels (dBA), according to the CLC. Because a worker’s exposure to noise levels may vary throughout the day, this is the permissible time-weighted average noise exposure. 

A variety of airside vehicle traffic, oftentimes pulling equipment, is a common source of noise. For example, the noise level of a tug pulling baggage carts can be measured up to 97 dBA from the edge of apron roadways. Aircrafts maneuvering in the airfield can also generate significant noise of more than 90 dBA when taxiing or during engine run-ups. 

Fortunately, much of the noise exposure is transient, it moves from location to location, and it is not continuous over long durations. 

“(And) proximity is protective. You’re not right beside a fully operational aircraft. They taxi and there’s some noise there but your distance is what’s protective,” says Strand.

High levels of noise exposure is an issue for anyone working in the airside environment. VAA has a hearing conservation program in place for affected workers, such as maintenance employees, airfield emergency services and airside safety officers. They are provided with custom-fit hearing protection and dosimeters to measure noise exposure. These employees are also required to undergo annual audiometric testing. Of the airport authority’s 400 employees, about 100 are involved in this program. 

To reduce noise exposure, the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA) tries to co-ordinate the shifts of its maintenance staff so they are working at times when there is not as much loud activity, says Michael Rantala, manager of safety and environment at HIAA in Enfield, N.S.

“Hearing is a big component for any activity, and reasonably, if your hearing becomes reduced, then that can also put you at additional risks and hazards just because of the nature of our business,” he says. “Doing work on airside, there’s a lot of radio traffic, so ensuing that communication is clear, concise and you understand it because of the high risk nature (is important).”

Airports often exceed the noise exposure limits, says Jim Fidler, a health and safety consultant based in Thunder Bay, Ont., so  they need to have proper controls in place. He also recommends airport authorities do a hearing assessment of each employee upon hire. 

High-voltage hazards

High-voltage hazards are a reality all airport authorities face. For example, airport runway systems for high visibility and low visibility have increased in complexity over recent years, and the voltages have risen exponentially, says Clark.

Electrical hazards is one of the top safety concerns Craig Richmond, president and CEO of VAA, has for his workforce. As the largest building complex in British Columbia, the airport has multiple voltages fed from BC Hydro, as well as uninterruptible power supplies and secondary power supplies which range from 64kV down to 240/120V. The authority maintains more than 160 electrical rooms and multiple remote kiosks.

“When you think about the pressure that can happen — it’s a foggy, rainy night, the lights are out on one of the runways, people are working — I just want to make sure they’re going about this very deliberately, following all the lock-out rules because this is very inherently dangerous stuff, high-voltage electricity,” he says. 

In 2002 an electrician died at the Edmonton airport by putting his hand into a box and getting arced. Airport authorities are starting to talk about this, but arc training has yet to evolve, says Clark.

“When things happen, they’re coming up with new subjects on how to deal with it, but it’s not really defined on the proper safe practices, which for an airport environment, people are working on generators and electrical systems that could kill you with one touch — and the arcing one, you don’t even have to touch it,” says Clark.

VAA has recognized it has more work to do in this area, so it is embarking on a significant arc and shock electrical safety initiative that puts the airport authority in compliance with some best practices, says Strand. It is updating work practices, providing state of the art personal protective equipment (PPE) to electricians, conducting audits, and refreshing online and instructor-led training. 


An airport operator’s biggest worry is always an aircraft and obstacle collision, whether that obstacle is fixed (such as a building) or moving (such as snowplows or baggage tugs), says Richmond. 

“We spend a lot of time and a lot of effort minimizing the number of people who are allowed to drive on the airfield and training them extensively and having very careful rules,” he says. 

An airport is a highly regulated environment and there are various locations within its design that are restricted. If workers drive vehicles beyond certain spots without permission, they are potentially putting themselves into high-risk situations, such as entering an active runway where there is an aircraft on approach, says Halifax’s Rantala. 

“There are numerous vehicles that are working in that same space, so we do have processes and procedures around who has the right-of-way, who has clearances and all the training and awareness that goes with that,” he says. 

Any employee who is driving a vehicle on the apron needs to receive an Airside Vehicle Operator Permit, which trains the workers on all possible hazards and includes a practical test that gives them the licence to drive out there. 

Exposure to jet blast

Driver training also extensively covers jet blast.

“If you’re driving a vehicle or walking in that area, you never go behind an aircraft that has their engines running,” says Rantala. “If you don’t know about jet blast, you may not recognize it and it can cause significant damage for sure.”

Jet blast is something VAA discusses ad nauseum with existing and new employees, says Strand. 

“When an airplane takes off or turns, there’s hurricane-level wind force… It has even been known to topple vehicles,” he says. “And if there are any artifacts or items that get blown up, they become a significant hazard.”

Every year, the VAA conducts a foreign object debris walk. Employees gather one morning at 4:30 a.m. to walk the airfield and aircraft movement areas to collect garbage or loose debris that could be picked up by an aircraft. 

Construction hazards

Nearly all major airports across Canada are undergoing construction. This poses a safety concern for the public and workers because airports still need to be open during the construction process. 

According to the union, many of these construction projects do not take the health and safety of the airport workers into consideration. During the actual building process, there have been multiple examples where debris has fallen through the roof and landed near workers and passengers, says Clark. He recommends a more collaborative approach between the provincially regulated contractors and the federally regulated airport authorities. 

“(Airport authority) heath and safety inspections have to actually go into these work sites also because they have an affect on airport workers,” he says. “Just because they fence it off, it does not create it as a new property; it’s still a part of the same working environment.”

Even during the design phase, contractors are not thinking about how airport workers will use the spaces after construction, says Clark. For example, the Vancouver airport is retrofitting a $65-million baggage system into an already established building and some areas of the system are only four feet high. This means some workers need to climb under, over or around equipment to do their jobs. 

“They are bumping their heads, so we’ve put foam on almost every possible thing, because it’s constructed by people who are not actually using it and they’re not actually building it ergonomically,” says Clark.

Front-line workers

Airport authorities have front-line workers, such as terminal duty officers and customer service employees. With an average of seven million passengers travelling through Canada’s top 16 busiest airports last year, front-line workers need to be prepared to deal with the public. 

These workers need to be particularly aware of potential heath issues. When the SARS crisis happened in 2003, for example, some airport workers felt the masks they were given were inadequate and they had not received enough information about the pandemic, says Fidler.

“You have to inform employees of all the hazards in the workplace, including potential or real hazards, and a lot of employers don’t do that,” he says. “Sometimes all it takes is a safety committee meeting or an email to do that. And if there is a hazard, an employer has to deal with it, and if it requires PPE, it has to provide it and train employees on how to use it.”

Front-line workers are also susceptible to workplace violence, as they often have to deal with angry passengers. 

In May 2008 the federal government implemented Violence Prevention in the Work Place Regulations. All federally regulated employers, including airports, are now required to take measures to eliminate violent acts toward employees.

 “They have to be trained in violence prevention measures, how to de-escalate. You’ve got to be able to say ‘OK, Jim, calm down, I know you’re upset.’ They have to be trained in how to do it,” says Fidler. 

Workers at HIAA are trained on when to call the on-site RCMP to step in. 

Fall hazards

All airport authorities face fall hazards, such as when workers are conducting maintenance on roofs, lights, cameras or the automated bridges that connect aircrafts to the terminal buildings.

The workers in Vancouver face a particular risk because the airport is on an island and has runway lighting piers that extend into the water.

“Employees need to go out and maintain the lights and infrastructure on these piers, so a fall hazard exists (because) the employees could fall into the water and the marsh, and a possible drowning hazard exists,” says Strand.

Security issues

Working in an airport means employees need to be aware of potential security risks. The HIAA, which has 180 workers, has an “eye watch” program where workers are encouraged to call a number to report anything suspicious, such as an unattended bag, says Rantala. 

All workers also receive a half-day security training session that covers the various security concerns present at an airport. 

Airport authority workers have special badging that indicates what areas of the airport they can access. If they are going post-security, they undergo similar screening as passengers, and they are subject to random searches as well, says Strand. 

Getting workers on board

VAA’s most common injuries are related to the back. To combat this, back injuries were the focus of its annual president’s award in 2013. The award recognizes two high-risk and two low-risk teams that have implemented excellent and innovative safety plans. 

“(Back injuries) cut across the entire company — if you’re lifting a big stack of paper or lifting a piece of equipment, your back is really important,” says Richmond. “People are thinking ‘How can I put in a good program that actually makes people involved?’ And there’s some competition; (workers) want to win that award.” 

No matter what position they hold — from customer service to maintenance — workers at the Vancouver Airport Authority are encouraged to take their time doing their job and make sure they are doing it safely. 

For example, the Vancouver airport moves almost 100,000 bags on a busy day. When part of the system is down, maintenance workers are under a lot of pressure to get it back up and running.

“(They are told to) make sure the part you’re working on is locked-out so that it can’t possibly get restarted when someone is in there replacing a motor or a belt,” says Richmond. “It’s a deliberate, very calm, very studied approach and don’t let the time pressures make you do something stupid. We can hack another two or three minutes of that belt being down for you to make sure that everything is safe.”

VAA and HIAA both have non-punitive reporting processes in place, where workers are urged to report any health and safety concerns they see.  

“They can put their hand up and say ‘OK, I’m a little bit worried about it, I think we should stop and take a look’ or ‘That was a close call, I need to report it,’ and there is no fear of any discipline,” says Richmond. “We don’t want anybody ever cutting corners to save time or money.”