Increased focus on human factors is making ramps safer and hangars less hazardous. That focus appears to translate into fewer workplace accidents, and fewer lost workdays.

Air France Industries KLM Engineering & Maintenance employs a pair of full-time ergonomists. “We integrate ergonomics at the very beginning of any industrial project,” says Pierre Girault, AFI KLM E&M's senior vice president of quality, safety, environment and sustainable development. “We organize the project around a process.”

At its Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, work stair design and protective headgear were issues. A rework of both allowed the maintenance facility to see a 30% drop in related accidents, says Girault. For six years running, overall workplace accidents have plummeted 10% per year, he says.

This emphasis on ergonomics is helping AFI KLM E&M's safety efforts. Many of those projects are accomplished high above unforgiving hangar floors. AFI KLM E&M's work stair initiative was partially driven by technicians, as was a project at ST Aerospace.

ST Aerospace designed a new modular rail system to reduce the risk of technicians taking a tumble from elevated aircraft docking platforms.

Lim Serh Ghee, ST Aerospace's COO, says the lightweight, adjustable modular rail system “has improved safety, [because] it can be set up to close any gaps as soon as the dockings are repositioned.” He says the system is faster and easier to install than temporary wooden structures and “has helped increase productivity on the work floor.”

At Delta TechOps, ergonomics and physical preparation work in tandem to control workplace injuries. “First and foremost, we want our employees to come to work mentally and physically prepared to go to work,” says Lee Gossett, Delta's managing director for line maintenance and director of maintenance for the carrier's Part 121 certificate. Technicians stretch and flex at the beginning of each shift. “Getting prepared to perform the task [is critical],” says Gossett. “We're all over the aircraft. We're up and down— squatting and bending and twisting.”

While Delta mechanics may be up and down all day, injuries have been down during the past five years, dropping 3-5% per year. Not all of this decrease is attributable to stretching. Devising an ergonomically friendly workplace entails communication, too.

“You've got to be willing to listen to the people that are actually doing the work,” says Douglas Cohen, safety chairman for Local 565 of the Transport Workers Union at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Cohen contends TWU and American Airlines have made significant strides in making ramp and hangar more habitable. PPE (personal protective equipment) is a big part of the reason why. “We watch mechanics” as they perform a check, says Cohen. “Everything they encounter, we document.” Then the union makes recommendations.

A case-in-point is bump caps. American's MD-80s are low-slung flying machines. Cohen says mechanics have injured themselves running into trailing edges of wings, gear doors, antenna, or pitot tubes, a hazard which he characterizes as “a real bad one.”

TWU recommended head protection by teaming with PPE distributor Medsafe. “We've already seen a reduction in injuries,” says Cohen. But that doesn't mean the union and American have stopped listening. “The feedback from the guys in the field is they'd like something lighter weight, that's not as hot, that's a little more stylish.”

Propagating proper PPE is a head-to-foot pursuit. Calling it a “huge win for the company and the union,” says Cohen. American now mandates brighly colored reflective vests for every employee whose foot touches the ramp.

Lots of safety initiatives percolate up from the shop floor, which was the case of a Delta mechanic who ran afoul of a Boeing 757 brake assembly. Gossett says there's a pinch point in the assembly where a technician disconnects one of the linkages to remove some bolts. When the technician pinched a finger and had to have the appendage stitched up, he devised a small aluminum tool that could be put where one's finger might go, thus eliminating the hazard. Delta TechOps tooling department produced the part and distributed it throughout the operation.

Many of the improvements seen out on the line and in the hangar are reflective of a systems approach to safety. Individually tailored as the answers may be, “These are fundamental, long-term questions” the industry is facing, says Eberhard Mueller, director of occupational safety and health for Lufthansa Group. To anticipate what might happen, “We are doing risk assessments,” he says, “putting this material in our management database.”

The single most significant leap in ramp and hangar safety is safety management systems, says Bill Johnson, FAA's chief scientific and technical human factors advisor for aircraft maintenance systems. The approach is being promoted by the International Civil Aviation Organization and adopted by member states.

Supporting safety management systems are initiatives such as FAA's aviation safety action program (ASAP). FAA has memoranda of understanding with about 46 maintenance organizations to implement the voluntary program. Volition is the heart and soul of the initiative. By electing to report problems technicians can “save [themselves] from certificate action, or even serious disciplinary action from his or her company,” says Johnson.

Pairing ASAP with a line operations safety assessment (LOSA) can make for a potent line and hangar maintenance safety system. LOSA is also predicated on voluntary, confidential and non-punitive participation. Those data are often collected by peer observations, during normal operations. Both unions and management buy into the process. Johnson says the beauty of this approach when properly applied is that it can help predict accidents. Say a peer observer is watching an aircraft as it's parked. Because there are no other aircraft in the immediate area, the person on the right side of the aircraft might not be using proper hand signals to the pilot. It's not a major mistake. Because the ramp was uncrowded, there was no harm done—at least not this time. If an employee is lax one time, it could become habitual. By focusing on the human failure to use proper procedure every time, LOSA can help predict that sometime in the future there's going to be a real problem with potentially serious consequences.

Ed Jonak, Southwest Airlines' manager of maintenance and engineering safety programs, is a true believer in predictive systems. The carrier invests a lot of credence in key performance indicators. There are two kinds: lagging and leading. 
A major lagging indicator is lost workdays. Another, intimately related to it, is injury. Incident-only or so-called “near misses” are leading indicators. Nobody gets hurt, goes to the hospital or loses any workdays in near misses. The company uses data from these incidents to intervene and stop potential future injuries in their tracks.

Lost workday cases at Southwest dropped by 15.5% from 2010 to 2011. At the same time “Incident reports have actually gone up by 6.2%,” says Jonak. The implication: “Maybe if we see six near misses, we can jump on that and hopefully prevent three accidents.”

Proving ROI

The FAA recently developed a tool to prove return on investment for human factor interventions, such as training. By inputting the estimated investment and results, the tool calculates the return on investment (ROI). A major MRO in the U.S. that elected to remain unidentified focused was how money invested in fatigue training correlated with ROI.

The MRO reported that a $205,000 investment to train up 2,500 employees for two hours each lead to a 10% reduction (amounting to $935,000) in aircraft damage, compared to 2010, when it incurred $10 million in losses due to damaged aircraft. The company also wanted to trim OSHA injuries by 10% or the equivalent of $119,000 compared to 2010. When the numbers came in, the ROI for the MRO was 312%. Actual aircraft damage was cut by $3 million, or 30%, and OSHA injuries by $184,000, or 15%.

Is this the breakthrough metric the industry's been seeking? Does safety then become an economic imperative? “That's the feeling this [MRO] had,” says Johnson.

CLICK to visit FAA's Maintenance Fatigue site and find the ROI Calculator and other fatigue risk management resources.