Vague OSHA/FAA MoU creates Redundant, perhaps Conflicting, Regulation of Cabin Crew Health

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ARTICLE: FAA Issues Policy to Improve Workplace Safety for Aircraft Cabin Crewmembers


For almost a year, the FAA and OSHA have been working feverishly to concede some of the authority of the aviation safety organization, which has among the most extensive jurisdiction held by a federal agency, to OSHA. A joint statement issued by the Secretaries of Labor and Transportation started the process. That initial announcement was barely a week old and a flight attendant union sought to expand the as-of-yet undefined purview to include OSHA regulation of cabin crew rest times.

Now almost a year later, Secretary Foxx, assisted by Administrator Huerta, and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez have issued a statement of the boundary lines which define where the FAA may regulate and where OSHA may exercise its powers. The line is stated as follows:

“…FAA continues to exercise its statutory authority to fully occupy and exhaust the field of flight deck crew safety and health while they are on aircraft in operation…an aircraft is in operation from the time it is first boarded by a crewmember preparatory to a flight, to the time that the last crewmember leaves the aircraft after completion of that flight…”

“….OSHA standards apply to the working conditions of aircraft cabin crewmembers while they are onboard aircraft in operation.”

Those terms create duplicative oversight; so the statement attempts to develop the distinction by an “occupy the field” definition, to wit:

“…FAA has not promulgated standards related standards related to the working conditions addressed by OSHA’s hazard communication and bloodborne pathogens standards…Similarly, although there are FAA regulations governing noise levels outside aircraft, FAA regulations do not address measures to promote hearing conservation for employees inside the aircraft; so OSHA hearing conservation standards may apply there.”

The MoU also holds the prospect that further invasion may be allowed by the FAA through later statements.

Before the OSHA authority is further expanded, some level of clarity has to be clarified. The hazard communication, bloodborne pathogen and hearing conservation standards require substantial detailed analysis. Superficial review creates substantial questions which may create conflict between the two authorities

  • If there are liquids contained within the aircraft’s many systems qualify as an OSHA hazard, even though the FAA determined that its use was safe from its review, may OSHA compel the removal of the liquid or might OSHA order that the flight cabin crew be briefed about its presence?
    • Does the OSHA standard allow a cabin crew member to refuse to work on the flight?
    • If the hazard is contained in the cargo deck, is a preflight announcement required?
    • And may the cabin member refuse to work based on the OSHA rule?
    • Should passengers receive the same briefings?
  • If OSHA determines that interior noise levels (note: the FAA’s noise standards for outside of the aircraft have NOTHING to do with employees!), can OSHA order:
    • The cabin crew to wear noise protection headsets even though such insulation will interfere with their emergency duties?
    • Would such an OSHA decision compel the airlines to provide the same protective materials to the passengers?
    • If instead of individual protection, OSHA decides that the aircraft walls must be further insulated, can that agency order trump the FAA’s airworthiness judgments?
  • The bloodborne pathogens rules involve protection of workers to exposure to, among others, HIV from infected needles. Might OSHA require airlines to install special receptacles on board? Does the FAA then have to determine whether such a box is crash worthy?

The MoU is 3 pages long and half of that recites the history of the OSHA/FAA relationship. The remainder of this almost yearlong negotiated document creates more questions than it provides answers.

What is abundantly clear is that there is no real division of their respective jurisdictions. That lack of separation means, for certain, conflict between the two federal bodies. Equally likely, is that both assert their power and that the airlines become subject to duplicative, if not conflicting rules.

If the cabin crew members are subject to substantial health risks, then there needs to be a clear unequivocal definition of what OSHA may regulate and what the FAA has sole jurisdiction. This MoU is not written with such clarity.

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2 Comments on "Vague OSHA/FAA MoU creates Redundant, perhaps Conflicting, Regulation of Cabin Crew Health"

  1. A tip of the editorial cap to JDA Associate John Goglia on his article pointing out the value of the OSHA reviews at Boston’s Logan Airpport–

  2. It’s really very useful to me. Thanks for sharing with us.

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