Workers’ compensation benefits are available to airline and airport employees who become injured at work
Years ago, the image of a flight attendant was a romanticized ideal—freshly starched uniforms and a sparkling smile, always ready to keep travelers comfortable and share cheerful pleasantries for a peaceful flight.
Today, although flying is safer than ever before, there are other risks inherent to being part of a flight crew. Unruly passengers, COVID-19 and other issues present new risks of injury to people who interact with the public as part of their job.
If you’re a flight attendant or airline employee, you’re eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if you become injured at work.
Common injuries for airline employees
Some airline workers never leave the ground. There are dozens or hundreds of people involved in getting an aircraft with travelers from its origin to its destination.
Baggage handlers, workers who clean and service the plane between passengers, load handlers, mechanics, ground crew and gate agents all risk injuries daily.
Some injuries that happen to people in these jobs include:
- Stress injuries from heavy or large baggage
- Injuries from lifting uneven loads
- Bending and twisting injuries
- Injuries from mechanical errors
- Muscle injuries from moving and/or lifting disabled passengers
- Falls on slippery or moving surfaces
- Being struck by a vehicle or other object
- Shift work disorder
- Noise exposure
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)
More specifically, musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), or repetitive strain injuries, can affect muscles, nerves, and tendons. The average baggage handler lifts between five and 10 bags per minute, and each usually weighs between 32 and 70 pounds. For that person to be working an eight-hour shift, that could be more than 500 pounds lifted. And, the lifting is only part of the issue—handling the bags can involve twisting, pulling and pushing—which also affects the back, neck, arms and other body parts.
Crew members who work on the ground in mechanics, who clean the cabins and who assist in other ways also spend a significant amount of time turning, reaching and twisting and are prone to these types of injuries as well.
Noise exposure can also lead to injuries for workers. It’s not just the planes (though they are noisy!), but also fuel trucks and other equipment that cause hearing loss and related problems like fatigue and stress.
Ramp accidents are another common problem in the airline industry. The International Air Transport Association reports that human error causes most ramp accidents. A worker can be struck or crushed by moving objects, or they could slip, trip or fall because of obstacles on ramps or spilled liquid.
Gate agent mistreatment
We think that a gate agent stands behind a desk or podium and would be at low risk for an injury. However, that’s not always true. Job-induced stress is a real hazard and gate agents bear the brunt of travel disruptions and delays as angry or demanding passengers can be physically or psychologically abusive. High levels of job-related stress can lead to hypertension, diabetes or strokes.
Gate agents are trained to empathize, listen, remain calm and not take attacks personally. Even so, it’s draining and demoralizing to be treated poorly day after day.
Risks to flight attendants
Flight attendants have their own share of injuries.
- MSDs are common to flight attendants, too. They suffer injuries from lifting or moving luggage in overhead bins and from pushing and pulling food and beverage carts.
- Shift work disorder (SWD) affects flight attendants because they have long and grueling schedules that change from week to week and they’re often crossing time zones. This can disrupt the body’s inner clock and lead to conditions that include obesity, diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
- Like any person in a job that is public-facing, flight attendants experience stress. Passengers could be a security risk, engage in conflict with other passengers or staff, or experience other types of stress from interactions with others in a highly-charged atmosphere.
- Burns and heat exposure can be a problem for flight attendants because they frequently handle hot liquids and ovens during flights. Unlike a ground-based restaurant, a sudden bump or jolt in the air can cause liquid to spill or a hand to touch a heating element.
- Turbulence can cause injuries to flight attendants, like bumps and bruises, broken bones or head and spine injuries.
- Illness can affect flight attendants. We hear a lot about COVID-19 these days, but there are lots of illnesses that can be spread within an aircraft. It’s important that the employer make sure each person has the correct vaccinations if they are on flights with international travelers and that handwashing protocols and sanitizing procedures are followed.
What are the options for recovering costs for an injured airline employee?
An injured worker (in nearly every industry) should be covered under their employer’s workers’ compensation insurance.
Here are the highlights of workers’ compensation insurance benefits:
- Workers’ comp is no-fault insurance. You do not need to prove that your employer, a coworker or anyone else was negligent or at fault for your injury. Simply the fact that you were at work or engaged in duties related to your job is enough.
- You do need to prove that you were working when you were injured. Along those lines, you do need to prove that you were physically present at your workplace or performing tasks for your job that caused the injury.
- If the injury is a condition or illness that develops over time (like a musculoskeletal injury or other stress injury), you need to prove that it was caused by your work.
As a flight attendant, gate agent or other public-facing employee, you would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits for any injuries suffered as a result of a passenger’s behavior.
The workers’ compensation system benefits both the employer and the employee. It provides a way for an injured worker to receive quick benefits without proving fault so that they can pay their medical bills and get the treatment they need.
It also means that the employee may not sue the employer for damages related to the injury for which they are receiving benefits. The employer can be confident that they won’t be engaged in a lengthy and time-consuming lawsuit, and the employee is financially compensated.
The exception is a third-party liability lawsuit. If your injury was caused by the negligence of a party other than your employer, you can file a personal injury lawsuit against that person or entity.
For instance, if safety equipment that is meant to protect you from injury fails or is defective, you might be able to sue the device manufacturer.
Benefits available for a workers’ compensation claim
Workers’ compensation programs exist in each state and each state has its own procedure and benefit structure for a claim.
As an injured airline employee, you would make a claim to your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier. If you need to appeal, it would be governed by the laws of the workers’ comp board in the state where your employer is located.
If you’re a federal employee who is employed by the FAA, for instance, you would be covered under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) program since your employer isn’t based in a specific state.
Although each state handles workers’ comp benefits slightly differently, you can expect to be compensated with the following benefits:
- Costs for medical treatment related to the injury, present and future
- A percentage of your lost wages while you’re recovering and unable to work
- Permanent partial or total disability payments if you’re unable to return to work
- Job retraining if you need to return to work at a different job because of the injury
- Costs for transportation to medical appointments
- Survivor benefits for dependent family members of a worker who dies as a result of a work-related injury
Workers’ compensation benefits do not cover pain and suffering, emotional distress or punitive damages. If you believe you should be compensated for expenses related to these types of injuries, you might need to file a lawsuit.
If your claim is denied or you believe that you’re not receiving the amount of benefits to which you’re entitled, you should contact a workers’ compensation lawyer. You should also consult a lawyer if your injury has left you with serious or long-lasting injuries. Once you accept an offer for a benefit amount, you can’t go back and ask for more—so if there’s a possibility you could require ongoing or future treatment, it’s important have a lawyer help you determine exactly what your future expenses will be.
Your workers’ compensation lawyer will know the system and the laws and can help you to receive the correct amount of benefits.