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"Airport screeners' injury rate declines but still exceeds rates of other workers"

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Airport screeners' injury rate declines but still exceeds rates of other
By Thomas Frank

WASHINGTON - The Transportation Security Administration dramatically cut the
injury rate for airport screeners in the past year, though it remains among
the highest in the nation.

On-the-job injuries, which have forced screeners to miss hundreds of
thousands of workdays, fell to 16 per 100 employees in the fiscal year that
ended Sept. 30, TSA data show. That's down from 29% in 2005 and 36% in 2004
in a trend some screeners attribute to a crackdown on injured workers.

"There's been a phenomenal focus placed on safety," said Earl Morris, TSA
general manager for field operations. "The benefits are enormous" because
fewer injuries mean more screeners at checkpoints and faster security lines.

The screener injury rate still far exceeds the rest of the federal
government and the private sector. Screeners among a workforce of 47,000 are
injured more often than workers in all but five of the roughly 600 jobs
tracked by the Labor Department.

Morris said screeners have to lift heavy bags, often in awkward positions
that cause strains. Injuries add to absenteeism that has forced the TSA to
shut security lanes and violate a law requiring checked luggage to go
through bomb detectors, according to congressional investigators. 

The TSA has installed rollers and bag hoisters to relieve screeners from
lifting, brought screeners back to work on light duty and attacked fraud
with an inspections office that has prosecuted employees who allegedly
falsified injury claims. "That sends a message that it's not something we're
going to tolerate," Morris said. He provided no figures on alleged fraud.

The injuries cost taxpayers $58 million in fiscal 2006 to cover wages and
medical benefits for injured screeners, the TSA said.

Some screeners feel the TSA discourages them from seeking workers'
compensation, said Greg Fox of the American Federation of Government
Employees, whose numbers include screeners.

Coralin Parker, a screener at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport,
said the TSA wouldn't let her take four hours off twice a week for physical
therapy appointments.

"I feel it's harassment. It upsets the heck out of me," said Parker, 63, who
tore a rotator cuff in September when she lifted a heavy carry-on bag at a
security checkpoint. She returned to work in October doing sedentary jobs
such as checking passengers' boarding passes.

The TSA couldn't comment on Parker's case but said it lets injured screeners
attend physical therapy during work hours in accordance with federal law.
The TSA says it brings screeners back to work only when they get medical

"It may be the employee doesn't think they're 100%, but the doctor thinks
they are," Morris said.

The TSA hired a company last year that oversees injured workers, whose
conditions are reported to agency officials. Instead of being told an
injured screener can't work, "we get a paper saying this is what they can
and can't do," Morris said.

Cris Soulia, a screener at San Diego International Airport and a union
official, said bomb detectors have been moved so screeners don't have to
carry luggage 10 feet from the machines to conveyor belts that lead to
airplanes. "They have improved some of the ergonomics," Soulia said.

Boston screener AJ Castilla, also a union official, said screeners are shown
videos demonstrating proper lifting techniques. "It was great," said
Castilla, who's hurt his back three times in his job at Logan International
Airport. "I could have used that video in orientation."

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