Every job has its hazards, and airline flying is no different. You wouldn’t think that something as benign as flying could at times be so risky—and I’m not even referencing the possibility of an accident. In twenty-three years of airline flying, I’ve seen both predictable and unpredictable on-the-job injuries, all of which call for some increased vigilance. Here are some examples.
A fellow first officer was getting out of the cockpit seat of a Brasilia, which has a very narrow space between the center console and the seat. There was an art to placing your inside foot in such a way that you could stand, pivot, and turn to get out. This guy’s foot got stuck in the worst place at the worst time, and as his weight shifted forward, his foot stayed still. He shredded several ligaments in his knee, which required extensive surgery and a lengthy rehab and absence from work. It was more in line with what you’d see in a bad football injury, but it forever changed the cavalier way in which any of us who were there that day get in and out of a seat. The pain on his face as he sat waiting for an ambulance is hard to forget.
In the pre-iPad days, with flight bags that routinely weighed more than 40 pounds fully loaded, shoulder injuries were very common. Bag stowage in the flight deck was often a secondary consideration of the manufacturer, if it was a consideration at all. Too often, in the interest of expediency, pilots would just reach around their seats and heft the bag out of its location, and anyone could see the potential for an injury. Repeat this act several times a day, and the risks just magnified. At my regional, it was even worse, because the bag had to be picked straight up at least 6 inches just to clear the hole it sat in. Imagine twisting your body 90 degrees, using the outside arm, and trying to get the leverage to lift 40 pounds straight up before pulling it toward you and twisting some more. While shoulders were the most common problem, lower backs and elbows were also affected. It became so expensive in terms of health costs that the parent airline began to work toward a transition away from such heavy bags, and those costs are a common argument made by most airlines as a driving force toward electronic flight bags.
Speaking of bags, several pilots suffered injuries while trying to do more than just their jobs. In an effort to help mitigate the impact of delays on both the company and the passengers, pilots have taken it on themselves to help load or unload luggage, especially valet-tagged bags that passengers are eagerly awaiting before they move on to their connections. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished, and several pilots have been hurt. To add insult to the literal injury, the company refused to honor workers compensation or to cover the medical expenses because the pilots were outside the bounds of their jobs. While most of these refusals of help result in such a loud cry of outrage the company is forced to reverse its decision, it doesn’t always work out that way, especially after the warnings are given. If it isn’t in your job description, think twice before you do it.
When regional jets were first introduced, very few used jetways, so boarding and deplaning required the use of air stairs on the door. When it rains, air stairs get wet and slippery. Imagine the potential with the aforementioned 40-pound flight bags while trying to navigate the air stairs during a driving rainstorm. I’m here to tell you that it’s a hoot and a half—until somebody gets hurt. More than one pilot and flight attendant has fallen (either forwards or backwards) from the air stairs, sometimes resulting in broken ankles, mangled knees, or even head injuries, to say nothing of torn uniforms. You didn’t even need to be carrying a bag, as the steps are steeper than standard, and slipping was all too easy.
One injury that didn’t take place on the job, per se, occurred in a hotel during a layover, when a pilot was asleep in a hotel and suffered a bite on his ankle from a brown recluse spider. It was right before his alarm was scheduled to go off, so he got dressed and decided to work the flight home. By the time he landed, nearly three hours after the bite, his foot and ankle were so swollen he had to take his shoe off and needed emergency transportation to the hospital. His delay almost cost him his foot, but he eventually made a full recovery and returned to work.
The most avoidable injuries seem to occur in vans and cars taking crews to and from hotels. While accidents are relatively rare, they do happen, and most of the injuries come from not wearing seat belts. A crew getting a ride to the airport on a foggy morning was involved in a single-vehicle accident when the van driver lost track of his location and took the van over the curb. The van driver suffered no injuries, but all of the crew did, as none of them were wearing seat belts.
Pilot on-the-job injuries often come from the files of the absurd, silly, or even humorous, but those affected are rarely laughing. You need to keep your vigilance up, keep a comfortable cushion of hours in your sick bank, and if your company offers short-term disability insurance, you should have it. When you see a situation in which the potential for injury is clear or obvious, use the appropriate means to report it and suggest changes. If the company refuses to consider your suggestion and something happens, you can at least have it on record that you tried to make a positive change.
If nothing else, always wear your seat belts and be careful in the rain.—Chip Wright