(Canadian OH&S News) — Worker safety at the Toronto Pearson International Airport has been in question following a recent incident in which a teenage Swissport employee was critically injured in a vehicle collision.
The 18-year-old ramp worker, a resident of Mississauga, Ont., was driving a motorized baggage dolly in a marked quarter when his vehicle hit a refueling vehicle coming from another direction on Aug. 20, according to information from the Peel Regional Police (PRP).
“This caused the operator of the baggage dolly to be thrown from the vehicle, and he sustained head injuries,” said PRP media-relations officer Const. Lilly Fitzpatrick. “He was taken to a local hospital, but then was transferred to a Toronto trauma unit, where he was listed in critical condition.”
Const. Fitzpatrick added that the ramp worker’s arm had become pinned underneath the fuel truck in the accident. “But I believe the more serious injuries were because he hit his head,” she said.
There was no update on the victim’s condition as of COHSN press time. Both the ramp worker and the fuel-truck operator, a 49-year-old Brampton resident, were serving the same Air Transat flight at the time of the accident.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour and Pearson’s aviation-safety unit are investigating the incident. “Because there’s no foul play that’s involved in this, our major collision bureau is assisting only,” said Const. Fitzpatrick.
Toronto Airport Workers Council spokesperson Sean Smith told COHSN that this kind of accident is rare, but does happen. “It’s a horrific accident. It’s a tragedy. They do happen, but fortunately not frequently,” he said. “But when you do it, it’s unfortunately usually very serious, and it’s not the first time we’ve had incidents like this.”
Smith speculated that worker safety at Pearson may be at risk because of the lack of consistent oh&s policy among all the companies that operate in collaboration with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA).
“The GTAA develops policies and procedures, communicates them to management, all these dozens of employers, and then counts on them to communicate it to us, the workers,” he explained. “So they only meet on these issues with management and then depend on management through their respective health and safety committees to do the procedures. Well, here’s where problems come in.
“Let’s say a company doesn’t have a proper health and safety culture, doesn’t have proper communications — and I’ll be honest, that’s a big problem at Pearson Airport, because a lot of these companies are fly-by-night contract ground handlers that just have minimum-wage workers,” continued Smith. “With a revolving door, there are new people coming in all the time. So if the chain breaks down, then there are people working at the airport under different sets of procedures.”
Shabeen Hanifa, the GTAA senior advisor in communications, said that Pearson has airport-wide safety programming that covers all companies there.
“The GTAA’s safety partners range from regulatory bodies to air carriers and ground handlers, and the GTAA also publishes a handbook for business partners — so that’s anyone who operates at the airport — which outlines the prerequisites to operate here, to ensure the safety, security and also the sustainability of our operations,” said Hanifa. “We are always looking at ways to instruct them as to how to grow the airport safety program.”
Smith pointed out that Pearson is Canada’s largest workplace, with about 40,000 employees. “It’s almost like a shopping mall. Everyone’s there from different companies, different unions, different contract ground handlers, everything else,” he said. “It’s just a hodgepodge.” He suggested that all safety discussions should involve workers and worker organizations instead of just the GTAA and employers.
“The GTAA, to be fair to them, are very conscientious about safety, but they just will not take that step to implement a joint safety council for everyone,” said Smith. “They still want to maintain the top-down management model, the only model that they have, which is silly. It’s 19th-Century thinking.
“A health and safety committee should be a joint process. Everyone, doesn’t matter who you are, what side of the table you’re on, we’re all impacted by health and safety. Everyone should be in the room together.”
Word of the incident reached the media nearly a week after its occurrence, during the first annual Canadian Airports Safety Week, which ran from Aug. 24 to 30. The Pearson-led initiative was intended to promote worker and passenger safety through Safety Talks to employees, according to Pearson’s website.
“This is definitely felt across the entire airport community,” said Hanifa, in reference to the accident. “Airport safety programming is very important to us.”