Why driving an airport tug can be a dangerous job

Baggage tugs, like this one at Kuching International Airport in Malaysia, can be hazardous to drive. Photo: Simon_Sees, via Creative Commons.

Baggage tugs, like this one at Kuching International Airport in Malaysia, can be hazardous to drive. Photo: Simon_Sees, via Creative Commons.

The baggage tractor driver at Los Angeles International Airport who died in February, apparently after falling out of his tug, was not wearing his seatbelt, I reported in today’s newspaper. This was a violation of company policy and federal guidelines.

My story was less about the incident in which Menzies Aviation employee Cesar Valenzuela died, and more about the overall difficulty in keeping tug drivers safe. Two drivers — one current and one former –told me airlines and contractors are constantly reminding workers to wear their seltbelts. Most do, the workers told me, but some do not.

There is also the issue of distracted driving. One ramp worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of getting in trouble, said this:

“I see some guys out there wearing earbuds listening to music, which is mental distraction, plus it obviously limits your ability to hear if a plane is nearby, another vehicle is honking, or if a co-worker is yelling for your attention.

“One guy with earbuds drove across the path of a plane that was pulling into the gate, forcing the plane to brake hard. That could have been catastrophic. My whole feeling behind that is if you get into a wreck or hurt yourself while not following the rules, it’s your own fault.”

While reporting this story, I learned that LAX had two other tug accidents during a two-month period in fall 2013. Here’s a summary of an Oct. 15 incident from an airport report:

“At Terminal 3, Gate 35, a tug driver lost control of and fell of his tug. Then (the tug) continued to travel, colliding with a cargo pallet and mobile bag belt before penetrating the wall adjoining a T-3 Ramp office. No injuries were reported.”

And here’s a report from a less serious Dec. 2 incident:

“…An American Airlines employee (was) injured by a tug. Employee denied medical treatment by LAFD and stated that he would go to American Airlines assigned clinic. Injury report was taken by (airport police.)

These problems are not unique to LAX. In 2012, after a Delta employee in Atlanta was ejected from a tug and died, the airline reached a settlement with Osha to improve its safety program. “OSHA cited Delta for violating 29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910.132, which requires employers to provide employees with personal protective equipment, including – in this case – seat belts,” Osha said in a press release.

After the settlement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a Delta memo that said the airline had been averaging 14 tug ejections per year, about half of which were resulting in serious injury.

As far as the LAX incident in February, a spokeswoman for Menzies told me the company began its seatbelt policy in January 2013.

“Menzies seat-belt policy is quite simple,” spokeswoman Maya Pogoda. “Anytime a Menzies employee leaves the gate area, he or she is required to wear their seat belt.”


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