There are many reasons not to panic about Ebola. Medical experts have declared the chance of a mass outbreak in the United States is negligible, often vastly overstated by politicians and media sensationalism.
But if you work at one of the international airports charged with conducting the government’s new Ebola screening program, while you may not have reason to panic, you do have a reason to be angry. Many low-wage airport service workers are protesting what they see as an urgent unmet need for upgraded safety and health protections.
The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) recently surveyed workers at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports and found that workers suffered regular exposure to toxic chemicals, unsafe working conditions and insufficient protective equipment and training. Airline terminal and cabin cleaners, along with wheelchair attendants who aid passengers with disabilities, often come into direct contact with bodily fluids and waste and chemical irritants, without adequate safety protection or training.
In response to Ebola concerns, Delta cleaning contractor Air Serv has issued a statement claiming it had updated its safety protocols for Ebola-related hazards the previous week, and that “we continually review our policies and procedures for updates and enhancements, and communicate updates to employees, as necessary.”
But last Wednesday, 200 Air Serv workers communicated their own concerns by walking off the job in protest. Though La Guardia, which handles mostly domestic flights, did not see significant disruptions in service, workers and advocates with SEIU 32BJ seized the ebola panic as an opportunity to raise awareness of the day-to-day occupational hazards they face. The airport workforce of some 12,000 workers across the New York region typically earn low wages under various subcontracting firms, without union representation. Many are now campaigning to organize with SEIU.
“We have to deal with vomit; we get insufficient materials to work like gloves that break; we deal with strong chemicals and waste that can cause damage,” said Air Serv Cabin Cleaner Antonia Alvarado in a statement. “As workers we deserve better treatment and quality of life.”
Although passengers aren’t usually at risk of encountering bloodborne pathogens during a flight, NYCOSH found that “not one of the wheelchair attendants that NYCOSH interviewed was provided with disposable gloves by the employer, despite being required to physically touch passengers and sometimes coming into contact with blood or other potentially infectious bodily fluids.” Some terminal cleaners and wheelchair attendants said they had not been trained on handling these exposures, which could include risk of Ebola, hepatitis B and HIV infection.
One surveyed wheelchair attendant described inadequate protections when dealing with sick passengers. “They tell us that we can’t use gloves [when we push the wheelchairs] because the passenger will feel embarrassed. But what about our health?”
A cabin cleaner noted that workers were often given no formal means of disposing of syringes that turn up in routine cleanings, so “if we do find a needle, we’ll just wrap it in paper towels and throw it away with the other garbage.” The ad-hoc handling of excrement, blood and other waste might pose a health risk not just to workers but the general public as well. NYCOSH noted that many airport workers were not trained in handling cleaning chemicals, or were unaware of what chemicals they were using. Some “suffered eye, skin and respiratory irritation from contact with these cleaning products.” A worker recalled using a chemical that “was so strong that if she got it on her skin, she would immediately get a rash.”
Workers also face everyday injury hazards. The trucks used to transport them sometimes lacked seatbelts or even seats. A worker recalled that after dislocating her shoulder when she fell on an icy ramp, the contractor repeatedly refused to pay for the hospital visit: “They blame us, and tell us that we should be more careful, but you’re carrying things in both hands and walking at the same time. It’s icy and dangerous.”
Theoretically, airport facilities fall under the regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Earlier this year, OSHA issued numerous citations to a cleaning contractor for safety violations at JFK, including failing to conduct workplace safety assessments and to provide protective gear. But beyond the occasional inspections and fines, advocates say, the root problem is that workers simply do not have the power to hold their employers accountable.
The pattern of disregard for workers’ health reflects an underlying trend toward using “outsourced” labor—companies contracting out service jobs in order to limit labor cost and legal liability for safety and worker rights. An extensive study by National Employment Law Project found that “outsourced workers can lose out on protections under core wage and hour, discrimination, and health and safety laws.” The inadequate regulation is further complicated by a lack of union protection for many contracting firms.
NYCOSH Executive Director Charlene Obenauer says via e-mail that union representation combined with effective collective bargaining is critical to advancing worker safety:
[U]nions have the potential to better address safety and health issues in their contracts. However, unions must prioritize addressing these issues in contract negotiations to ensure that workers are protected. Employers often try to make unions choose in their contract negotiations between wage increases, benefits, or the reduction of hazards on the job. An ideal union organizing campaign would address safety and health issues from the onset and then would continue to follow through on these issues in contract negotiations, without compromising the safety and health of their members.
Despite the growing public hysteria about Ebola, the vulnerability of frontline service workers, who are best positioned to contain any potential risk, persists throughout the public health infrastructure.
Parallel to the airport workers’ protests, the National Nurses Union, which has helped lead a grassroots push for comprehensive protection for healthcare workers, just issued a troubling national survey of registered nurses showing that “80 percent say their hospital has not communicated to them any policy regarding potential admission of patients infected by Ebola.”
Globally, a more realistic triage of risk by health officials would focus funding and logistical efforts on directly reinforcing healthcare workforces in actual Ebola hotspots in West Africa, not political gestures at Western airports.
The issues that airport workers raise shouldn’t be seen as alarmist; they just want the protection needed to do their job competently and confidently. When the frontline safety infrastructure is left uncertain or underprepared, the workforce faces the real, yet wholly avoidable risks of excessive anxiety and instability in public spaces. Prioritizing these workers’ health keeps everyone protected, and the epidemic neglect of their safety should alarm all of us.