October 10, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Workers at LaGuardia Airport fearing exposure to Ebola and other infectious disease went on strike this week. The action comes on the heels of a health and safety report confirming the potentially hazardous conditions cabin cleaners, baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants face every day working at the city’s busy travel hubs.
“In our interviews with contracted out airport workers we found that unsafe working conditions are pervasive at JFK and LaGuardia airports,” said Charlene Obernauer, executive director, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health [NYCOSH]. “These hazardous conditions are preventable, and contractors, airlines and airports should make it a priority to eliminate these risks for workers and passengers alike.”
The NYCOSH report cites several disturbing findings in direct relation to current fears about Ebola contamination. One of the most alarming found that airport workers routinely clean up the blood, urine, feces, and vomit of sick passengers without proper cleaning materials or protective equipment.
Unprotected contact with bodily fluids originating from an actively symptomatic Ebola sufferer can spread the disease to others.
“These workers who are paid poverty wages at the airports also aren’t provided with the proper training, materials or equipment to deal with bodily fluids, blood and other hazards,” said Hector Figueroa, president, SEIU 32BJ. “These workers deserve the basic resources that would make their jobs safe for both themselves and for passengers.”
In contrast, LaGuardia Airport workers who formed a picket line outside of Terminal D this week say that management's cost cutting measures are only making matters worse. Employees for Air Serv, say the size of cabin cleaning crews have been slashed in half in some cases, and given as little as five minutes to clean out entire airplanes between flights.
Last month, an Air Serv cabin cleaner was reportedly hospitlized after being pricked with a hypodermic needle while cleaning out a seat back pocket. Workers also report transporting leaking garbage and being sprayed with feces while emptying airplane lavatories.
Several complaints have been filed with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, but Air Serv workers say that the company has not taken any action to address their concerns.
Emergency rooms throughout the metropolitan area have been put on high alert in the wake of growing Ebola concerns. In response, SEIU 32BJ, the largest property service union in the country, scheduled infectious disease training for at risk airport workers this week.
Proper safety measures can, indeed, protect workers from disaster. Ebola is neither an air- or food-borne disease, according to doctors.
“You could walk right by a person [with Ebola] and you will not get infected,” says Dr. Frank Proscia, head of Doctors Council SEIU. “It’s only if you touch bodily fluids or blood, and that enters your system.”