The suitcase rolling toward airport screener Bridget Cotton on the knee-high conveyor belt at Louisville International last July looked like it would weigh 35 pounds. But as she scooped it up, pain shot through her, and she found out it was a 75-pounder.
Security screeners at airports have one of the highest injury rates in the nation.
Tim Dillon, USA TODAY
"It was like somebody took a knife and jabbed it right into my lower back," says Cotton, 36, one of 45,000 federal screeners who check airline passengers and their luggage for weapons and explosives. The bag didn't contain anything threatening — but it caused plenty of harm to Cotton, who has been on workers' compensation for seven months with a lower back sprain.
"Ninety-eight percent of the time, I'm in pain," Cotton says. "I can't sit for very long. I can't stand for very long. I can't even walk my dog."
Cotton and her colleagues are on the front lines of the nation's effort to protect air travel. They're also at the forefront of one of the USA's worst occupational hazards. Security screeners at airports have one of the highest injury rates in the nation — mostly because of strains, sprains and spasms from struggling with luggage at poorly designed checkpoints, according to a USA TODAY review of federal labor and homeland security records.
Injured workers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), more than two-thirds of whom are screeners, missed nearly a quarter-million days of work last year. The lost job time has contributed to a staffing shortage that has strained checkpoint security and lengthened lines at airports.
TSA employees injured on the job missed work in 2004 at five times the rate of the rest of the federal workforce. They were injured four times as often as construction-industry workers and seven times as often as miners.
That absenteeism rate raises new worries about aviation security.
"If a number of them are sick or disabled, you've got even fewer people to do the same work," says Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a veteran member of the House aviation subcommittee. "There's more pressure on the remaining employees to put people through more quickly. It potentially jeopardizes security because of the rush."
Among the problems caused by the staffing shortages:
• Repeated violations of a post-9/11 law requiring all checked luggage to be screened with bomb-detection machines — often because workers weren't available to operate the devices.
• Missed training for screeners, which the former Homeland Security Department inspector general blames for recent failures to detect weapons and explosives.
• Extensive overtime that TSA chief David Stone has said increases fatigue and turnover.
• A $67 million cost to taxpayers from July 2002 to June 2004 to cover wages and medical expenses for injured screeners.
Injuries and security
John Moran, chief of staff at the TSA division in charge of worker safety, says the injuries haven't weakened security. Airport security directors, he says, compensate for absences either by having screeners work overtime or by closing screening checkpoints.
But Moran acknowledges problems. The culture at TSA "may be a detriment in safety" to screeners, he says. "We have a culture right now that seems to be very focused on moving people, and (screeners) not necessarily asking for the help they might need" when lifting heavy bags.
The TSA also may have hired screeners unable to handle the heavier bags, Moran says.
And in a rush to meet a post-9/11 deadline to screen all luggage, bulky explosives-detection machines were placed wherever they would fit in airports — often in spots that contribute to injuries. Screeners are often forced to lift bags from awkward positions and haul them significant distances, Moran says.
Moran says the TSA is looking at improving the layout of checkpoints and may also require job applicants to meet stricter strength standards. When workers are absent because of injury, medical specialists would check on them to make sure they get back to work in a timely fashion, Moran says.
The changes probably would be put into place sometime this year.
Lost days pile up
TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark says the number of injuries declined each month from July to November of 2004 as safety teams at every airport made improvements, such as providing luggage carts to make it easier to move bags.
But the figures TSA provided show an injury rate — the number of injuries per 100 employees — of about 26% in the second half of 2004. That compares with 5% in the private sector in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available.
TSA's annual injury rate soared from 19% in fiscal year 2003 to 29% in 2004, according to the government's count of workers' compensation claims that have been approved. Those figures include all injuries, whether or not an employee missed work.
The rate of injuries that forced TSA employees to miss work jumped from 9% to 12%. In the private sector, the rate was 1.5%.
At San Diego International Airport, 140 of roughly 480 screeners were injured last year, missing a total of 1,887 days. That's the equivalent of losing five screeners a day. Injured screeners were put on light duty or other restrictions for an additional 6,133 days — the equivalent of about 17 screeners a day.
"Nobody is brought in to replace them," says San Diego screener Cris Soulia, an officer in the American Federation of Government Employees, a federal workers' labor union that has tried to represent screeners. "We run short-handed."
Most screeners work an 81/2-hour day with a half-hour meal break and two other 15-minute rests. Some screeners work four 101/2-hour days a week with the same breaks. The bulk of the injuries reported are to luggage screeners, who often work in basements or other locations that keep them out of public view.
Federal safety investigators began looking into complaints about TSA workplace hazards in January 2003. That was two months after the TSA finished hiring screeners to replace private security guards at all 429 U.S. commercial airports.
Since then, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited TSA workstations around the country for 75 workplace-safety violations. Ten violations were for previously cited conditions. Thirty-two were "serious," indicating a "substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result, and the employer knew or should have known of the hazard."
At Buffalo Niagara International Airport, TSA officials ignored screeners who complained that management had covered four of seven emergency stop buttons on each of five luggage-scanning machines in an effort to stop accidental shut-offs, says screener Gil Harris, a member of the airport safety team.
TSA managers left the covers in place, Harris says, until OSHA inspected the airport in November 2003 and issued TSA a serious violation because machines "could not be reliably shut off quickly."
"A lot of our safety concerns fall on deaf ears," Harris says.
Following an inspection at Portland (Ore.) International Airport in November 2003, OSHA cited the local TSA for five workplace safety violations. The agency also issued an "ergonomic hazard letter" advising TSA's local director to improve a half-dozen conditions causing screeners to have muscle problems, tendonitis and hernias.
OSHA inspectors who returned a year later saw some improvements, such as carts being used to move luggage. But airport security director Robert Jackson was "constrained by his headquarters and lack of funding," according to an OSHA report.
Three pages of hazards
Another OSHA report in December listed three pages of "recognized hazards" at Portland, which has identical machines and similar conditions to those at other airports.
The report found that screeners were lifting luggage as quickly as one bag every seven seconds during rush periods and bending sharply to hoist them from the floor or conveyor belts.
The bags often were heavy — more than 70% on one shift weighed 50 pounds or more. Bags that were over airline weight limits were not marked as such, as they should have been, the report said. It added that having screeners work long hours was "a very stressful policy."
The report offered 27 potential solutions, such as giving screeners sticks to use to push down bags on conveyor belts instead of leaning on them.
Screener injuries — like those that have given airline baggage handlers one of the highest injury rates in the private sector — sometimes leave employees out for long periods. Six airport injury reports show that the average screener who misses work is out for 43 days.
Bomb screening lags
The Government Accountability Office reported a year ago that "a number of airports" were not screening all luggage with machines that detect explosives — required by post-Sept. 11 law — but were using options such as bomb-sniffing dogs and hand searches.
The GAO said this "was primarily due to shortages of trained staff" that result from hiring difficulties, a staffing limit imposed by Congress and screener absences.
The GAO also said that at five of 15 large airports, staffing shortages left screeners "unable to attend all required training."
And when then-Homeland Security inspector general Clark Kent Ervin reported last fall that screeners missed explosives and weapons in undercover tests in the second half of 2003, he said, "The lack of recurrent training led to many of the failures." Undercover agents have smuggled guns, dynamite and bombs past screeners.
Also, the agency shifted screeners between airports last year to minimize vacancies, but the GAO said "it is too soon to tell" if that will help screeners get the required three hours a week of training.
Airport security directors decide how to deal with injury-related absences. They have two choices, says Randall Walker, director of Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport: "Sometimes you pay overtime. Sometimes you just don't have as many people, and things back up."
Work conditions have also increased screener turnover. Injured screeners have left for new jobs. Stone cites overtime to explain why the TSA's attrition rate rose to 22% last fall from 15% in 2003.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, high turnover was blamed for many of the failings of private guards who screened air travelers and lacked experience at detecting weapons on passengers and in bags.
A herniated disc prompted Michael Jasilewicz, 50, to quit his screening job last year at Boston's Logan International Airport. Jasilewicz says he needed surgery after lifting bags as heavy as 100 pounds day after day.
He's not sure what specifically caused the injury — "but I know I was fine when I started there."
Now he works as a maintenance man.