Health and Safety Issues in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering
If you are interested in aircraft engineering, a good place to start looking for aircraft engineering jobs is in the field of aircraft maintenance. As with most new jobs you consider, there are a few health and safety issues you should know about before you pursue a job in the field.
25 Jan 2016
We will start with a brief overview and then move into a more specific look at a few health particulars before looking at some safety issues as well.
Aircraft and avionics equipment mechanics do experience rates of illness and injury that are somewhat higher that the national average. As they work on aircraft, they often must lift heavy objects, operate power tools and handle chemicals that can be dangerous. Noise and vibrations are common, so they take precautions such as wearing ear protection and brightly colored vests so everyone can see them. They also may work up in the air on scaffolding or ladders so they can reach the aircraft.
Because many people in aerospace engineering jobs regularly work non-typical hours, their risk of physical and psychological impairments (or disease) is greater than any normal risk assumed by a typical day worker. This risk likely comes from the physical and psychological stress that is a common result or work-related schedule disruptions of a worker’s biological functions such as sleep, a social life and a family.
Because aircraft engineering is a critical safety function with a direct link in the chain of events that could lead to any kind of aircraft incident, the connection between health and safety and shift work should be addressed by everyone involved.
Effect of shift work on health
To sustain operations at a high level, many aircraft companies have to maintain an around-the-clock (24/7) maintenance schedule for their aircraft engineering jobs. Personnel who work in this system will have different shift patterns and time schedules that can lead to various psychological disorders, including the following:
Fatigue and Sleepiness
Working different shifts can cause issues with circadian (around a day) rhythms. Your internal body clock can become desynchronized as your sleeping and waking cycle changes, and a primary result of this can be a contributing factor to fatigue and sleepiness at work.
Sleep is main bodily function that shift work disrupts – many bodily processes such as temperature, blood pressure and heart rate are at their lowest at night, so it’s not really surprising that personnel who work at night and sleep during the day often report that neither activity is going very well. They may have difficulty falling asleep during the day because they are trying to sleep when their body wants to be awake, so they are at odds with their circadian rhythm. Because work and personal schedules often conflict, shift workers rarely ever adjust fully to their shift work schedules.
Another common issue with shift work is the psychological and emotional distress that can accompany shift work. This is consistent with what we said above about the effects of sleep disruption. This psychological distress can be a primary reason why many people end up leaving shift work.
Gastrointestinal disorders are the most common health complaint of shift workers such as aircraft maintenance personnel. These issues include constipation, heartburn, gas, irregular bowel movements and appetite disturbances.
Various studies have reported a relationship between shift work and cardiovascular disease, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in shift workers who work especially in groups. Some of the difficult effects of this shift work that can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease include the mismatch between your circadian rhythm and your sleep, problems with your family and social life, increased alcohol and tobacco consumption and more.
Other Individual Factors
Once they get past the age of about 50, shift workers such as aircraft engineers find greater difficulty in changing their sleep and wake cycles. Aging people find a decrease in “deep sleep” and an increase in “light sleep.” Also due to the psychological effects of aging, coping with the pressure of shift work becomes more difficult after the age of 50.
Guidelines for Good Practices
There are ways to mitigate the negative effects of shift work for airline personnel. These efforts include the following:
The performance of personnel in aerospace engineering jobs varies greatly as shifts are extended, so you should make sure your company adheres closely to regular time schedules in order to avoid issues caused by fatigue. Shifts generally last eight hours, which can be extended if needed, but working longer than 12 hours should be avoided if at all possible. Airline maintenance personnel should also make sure to obtain adequate rest between their work shifts.
Fatigue that builds up over your shift can be partially alleviated by making use of breaks. Working a long period of time without any break can lead to more fatigue and more incidents, so this should be avoided.
Residual fatigue can accumulate over several weeks and months even when you have rest days, so putting a limit on what can be done over a long period of time (and allowing for vacation) is important.
Limits on Night Shifts
Good evidence exists that risk for problems increases at night by about 30 percent compared to day shift workers. This risk increases when you work more than one night shift in a row, so the number of continuous night shifts should not be more than two. Night shifts should also be followed by at least two days in a row of rest.
Another health-related risk for personnel in aircraft engineering is an increased mortality rate for pleural cancer. Maintenance employees who do repair work, including those whose primary responsibility includes maintenance of the landing gear section and the brake replacement section are prone to asbestos disease (pleural mesothelioma).
A variety of toxic substance have been used in past aircraft construction, including materials that contain asbestos in various aircraft components. From 16 to 23 percent of asbestos (by weight) can be found in brake units.
Now that we have covered some health issues, let’s turn to safety for aircraft maintenance engineers.
The hazards and risks that you can find in regard to maintenance work on aircraft are very similar to those you would find in the construction industry. There are a few additional risks specific to the airline industry, including the non-linear shape of the aircraft you are working on, and the importance of avoiding damage to the outer surface and structure of the plane.
It is incumbent on every employer to make sure their access equipment is safe (as far as is reasonably practical) for employees to use. Practical, suitable and effective measure should always be taken to keep anyone from falling any distance that could cause them any personal injury.
A variety of different equipment is used to allow workers access to the aircraft upon which they must perform maintenance. This includes work platforms that are suspended especially for aircraft refinishing work, decking that is customized to fit certain areas of the plane (or the whole thing), docking that can be adjusted in both profile and height (i.e. for the nose, tail, etc.), different kinds of scaffolding, mobile elevating work platforms, towers and steps.
These obviously pose various safety issues. Special docking equipment is also available to minimize risk. This is expensive equipment, but it provides safe access so it can be matched closely to the contour of the plane. Such systems may even be part of the hangar structure and used in various horizontal and vertical combinations.
It is more common, though, to use custom scaffolding and docking, which are usually viewed as permanent mobile structures.
One of the biggest issues in providing safe access to aircraft is the need to follow the rounded (i.e. not straight) body shape of the plane. You must pay strict attention to detail to make sure there are not any dangerous gaps between the plane and the working platform.
All working platform edges from which personnel could fall any distance liable to cause personal injury should include edge protection. The plane itself usually provides protection on at least one edge.
Openings in the plane’s fuselage (such as doors and cargo holds) should either include edge protection or be kept closed. Straps are not suitable as protection. Edges from which tools and materials could fall should also include toeboards for the protection of those beneath. The gap between the plane should also be as narrow as possible, and it should never be large enough for people or objects to fall.
You should always keep scaffolding and all platforms stable, and you should be able to provide evidence that you have performed strength and stability calculations. Access to scaffold and decking should be internal, strong enough to hold the weight of materials and fitted with trap doors. In some cases, you should also have a prepared plan in place to assemble, use and dismantle the scaffolding. An emergency means of escape should also be considered so that personnel have more than one way to get down should an incident occur.
These are just a few of the health and safety issues that you will deal with as an aircraft maintenance engineer, whether you start with an aircraft engineering apprenticeship or whether you have been in the business for decades. The need for good health and safety never takes a break, so you should always take proper precautions. If you do so, you will be healthy and safe, and you can have a long, productive career in aircraft engineering.