The Hazards of Cellular Devices In the Airport Environment

The Safety Net guest blogger: Randy Bisgard, Senior Vice President – Airport Business Solutions

With the proliferation of small personal communication equipment, cell phones, wrist phones, Google glasses, I-pods, music players, and hand-held games, several industries, including aviation, are seeing increased problems associated with the use of these devices.  The trucking, rail transport and aviation industries have already seen accidents, including loss of life, due to cellular equipment related distractions.  According to the National Safety Council, you are 23 times more likely to have a problem while texting and driving resulting in over 1.6 million accidents annually.  Clearly, the safety and security of employees, customers, and airport users is threatened by the use of these devices.  The issues and concerns may seem obvious, but the variables of how to address them and the application of policies and procedures to deal with them can be more complex.

While two-way radio communications systems have been safely used for years on airports, the combination of the new generation of communication technology and the culture of the personnel that use them has changed significantly.  In today’s world nearly everyone has some type of cellular device.  In some cases, mostly for safety reasons, even small children are being given cell phones because of their parents desire to be able to instantly connect with their kids.  In many situations this can be good, but there are various workplace operations, particularly in active aviation environments, whereby these devices can be very hazardous or even deadly.  Today’s communication culture has exploded into a need to be constantly connected to others via calls, text messaging or other means.  The explosion of social media is also a key factor in how we connect with each other.  The ability to immediately send and receive large amounts of information including photos is also a factor contributing to workplace distractions.

By comparison, your typical workplace two-way radio operation is as simple as pushing down a button and speaking into a microphone.  While somewhat distracting, these push-to-talk radio communications can be accomplished fairly safely because you can keep your head up and focus on the task at hand.  Today’s technology, particularly cellular devices with digital screens and miniature keyboards, require a user to look down at the unit and sometimes use both hands, the primary reason that they are inherently more hazardous for the task being performed at the time.  This should not imply that hands-free phones are safer or should be allowed on the ramp, because the distraction factor continues to be a serious issue since phone conversations are typically more intensive than radio calls.

Currently, most states have already enacted or are considering legislation to prohibit texting while driving on public streets and highways.  While some states allow “hands-free” phones, there is a significant a growing trend toward the limitation of all phone use while driving.  This growing trend is causing many industry and governmental groups to start to track accidents and injuries related to the use of electronic devices while at work or on the road.

Recognizing the fact that there are certain supervisory situations or logistical reasons for allowing limited, or company-issued, cell phone use around the airport, there are several things that should be considered to reduce the risk to your operation.  Overall, good communication can provide valued benefits to all types of airport operations or service functions on the field, both from a customer service and efficiency perspective.  However, some “best practices” must be considered for airport facilities and operations to maintain a safe working environment. 

  • In general, most use of personal cell phones during work hours should be prohibited.   In particular, cellular devices should not be allowed on a person who is entering airport work areas such as aircraft ramps and parking areas, fuel storage areas, cargo areas, warehouses, maintenance hangars, and other hazardous materials areas.  Phones are not only a distraction, they can be dropped or fall into fuel tanks, aircraft component areas, engines, or other areas that could cause damage, FOD, or explosions issues.
  • All other types of personal communication or entertainment equipment such as I-pods/pads, CD/DVD players, electronic games, and other similar equipment should never be allowed in the industrial workplace.
  • “Company issued” cell phones required for proprietary on airport use must be certified as intrinsically safe and approved under the Class 1, Division 1 requirements and the National Fire Protection Association.
  • Cell phone use should never be allowed while operating any GSE equipment or preforming any airfield related job task.
  • All approved or company cell phone use must be kept at least fifty (50) feet from any vehicle or aircraft refueling operation, parked refueling vehicles, fuel storage areas, aviator’s breathing oxygen storage, and any other hazardous material storage areas.
  • Personnel in customer service areas, or those dealing with the public should also not be allowed to use personal cell phones at their workstation.
  • When operating a vehicle off-airport, personnel with company issued or approved cell phones should be required to pull over and stop to conduct a call.  Check the latest rules and regulations for vehicle operation and use of electronic devices in your state.
  • Placing a call when within the AOA should be severely restricted to emergency situations only.  Incoming calls should be allowed to go to voice message mode when operating around aircraft or anywhere on the AOA.  Calls can be returned once ground activities are completed.
  • If operating a vehicle on active runways or taxiways, cell phone use should be prohibited and only radio communication with the control tower or FAA approved source should be allowed.
  • Company cell phone use should never be allowed in precarious positions such as climbing ladders, on walkways, work stands, jet bridges or other areas that require full attention.   Never allow cell phone or two-way radio usage during aircraft marshaling operations.
  • 24-hour operations that require personnel to answer incoming calls at night should also have restrictions on their use.  Incoming calls should be ignored and voice mail utilized when performing any ramp service functions, particularly aircraft towing, refueling and maintenance operations.
  • If a call must be returned, the user must step away from the work at hand and safely complete the call before returning to any job-related function.  Particular care should be taken and training procedures followed in these scenarios since the potential for distraction from the work at hand can be disastrous when working on or near aircraft.
  • If the use of a cellular device is allowed in some work area, restrictions should also be placed on taking photos or recording images.  The transmission of photos or posting of images on social media, particularly anything related to accidents, proprietary company issues, and customer aircraft should be prohibited.

There may be many other airport operations or service situations not covered by these basic best practices that may be unique to your situation.  We strongly suggest that you review your local airport or company operating procedures from top to bottom to ensure that each person’s work environment is safe regarding communication policies and phone procedures.  Be sure to make these practices a part of your written operations manual, training programs and safety management systems.  Work with your human resources department or local regulatory agencies to establish methods for control of electronic device usage including penalties consistent with your other policies.  Control can be difficult considering the small size of devices that can easily be hidden in clothing or pockets.  Watch for earphones connected to wires that may indicate the use of music players, particularly since elevated sound levels could easily drown out any critical natural work sounds that would warn of impending danger.  This cannot be emphasized enough particularly for those individuals working in area of moving equipment and spinning propellers.

In today’s world of “right now” communications, the expectation has become that you have to immediately respond to everyone that calls/texts you.  Moreover, there continues to be a mistaken expectation that a person can continue to maintain full focus on their job while talking or texting while handling other tasks.  This is a difficult training and culture-changing task for airport operations.  However, when you are working in and around aircraft and related ground equipment, there must be only one task at hand, and that task must have every individual’s full and undivided attention. |

Thanks for reading!

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