AFL-CIO Says OSHA's Latest Alliance Won't Fly

Earlier this week, a group of 13 airlines and the International Air Transport Section of the National Safety Council joined the growing ranks of business sectors that have signed a partnership or alliance agreement with OSHA.

OSHA and the airlines agreed to share best practices and technical knowledge, with a special focus on the promotion of ergonomics in the safe handling of checked baggage.

This alliance, like the recent one recently announced between OSHA and the American Meat Institute, has further poisoned relations between OSHA and organized labor.

"It's really quite outrageous," said Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health at the AFL-CIO. "They're reaching out to the airlines to talk about baggage handling and they never bothered to talk to the unions and workers involved who actually do the work."

Seminario called the administration's new policy of reaching agreements with employers that exclude employee representatives without precedent.

"This is quite a different model of voluntary activity from what was done even during the Reagan administration," asserted Seminario. The Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), for example was done on a "tri-partite" basis, including OSHA, management, and workers. In the past, partnerships always included labor unions whenever the company had a union, she added.

Alliances, a creation of the new administration, evidently differ from partnerships in that they do not require worker participation.

"Basically this administration has decided, 'if you don't agree with us, we don't want to talk to you,'" Seminario argued.

Jim Swartz, director of corporate safety at Delta Airlines, said that unlike other corporations in the industry, his company has no union.

Delta does have safety committees as well as ergonomic committees, however, and Swartz said these worker groups are not parties to the alliance at this point.

"We have to grow this to become more inclusive," Swartz explained. "We didn't start with a solution, but with a problem." In addition to workers, the airline industry is hoping to include passengers, luggage manufacturers and airports to help reduce baggage handling injuries. "We can't get everyone to sign on day one," Swartz added.

OSHA says ergonomic issues related to the handling of passenger checked baggage will be addressed by exploring methods of promoting communication, outreach, training, education and a national dialogue.

"This alliance provides us a great opportunity to advance a culture of injury and illness prevention among workers in the airline industry," said OSHA Administrator John Henshaw.

Over the next year, OSHA and the participants will review ways to improve OSHA's e-tool and conduct a one-day seminar for participating airlines and other interested aviation participants on OSHA's VPP. Plans also call for a seminar with the airlines and OSHA personnel to discuss ergonomic issues, solutions and limitations related to handling passenger-checked baggage.

The alliance participants will discuss ideas for ergonomic improvement associated with handling of checked baggage during a national safety-related conference and possibly other venues. Finally, OSHA and the Airline Group will develop a biomechanics-training module for workers who handle checked baggage and make that module available free-of-charge to all airlines.

A team of alliance members will meet at least quarterly to develop and execute an action plan, determine working procedures, and identify the roles and responsibilities of the participants.

Seminario was not impressed. "These alliances are just 'feel-good' relationships," she said. "All we see are a bunch of press releases, and I don't know that there's anything real behind them."

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