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Ergonomic issues in flying

Fasten your patience and extinguish your self pity

By Dr Hemantha Wickramatillake and Captain Menaka Fernando
Apart from issues raised in previous articles, Ergonomics also plays a significant role in both passenger and airline crew comfort, more in the latter. The main ergonomic problem for technical or cockpit crew, is the need to work for long hours while seated in a very limited working area. In this position, (restrained by lap and shoulder harness), it is necessary to carry out a variety of tasks such as movements of the arms, legs and head in different directions, consulting instruments at a distance of 1m above, below, front and to the side, scanning the distant sky ahead, reading a map or manual at close quarters (30 cm), listening through earphones or talking through a microphone. Seating, instrumentation, lighting, cockpit microclimate and radio communications equipment comfort have been and still remain the object of continuous improvement. Today’s modern flight deck, often referred to as the “glass cockpit”, has created yet another challenge with its use of leading-edge technology and automation; maintaining vigilance and situational awareness under these conditions, has created fresh concerns for both aircraft designers and the technical personnel who fly them.
Cabin crew have an entirely different set of ergonomic problems. One main problem is that of standing and moving around during flight. During climb and descent, and in turbulence, the cabin crew is required to walk on an inclined floor; in some aircraft, the cabin incline may remain at approximately 3% during cruise as well. Also, many cabin floors are designed to create a rebound effect while walking, putting additional stress on flight attendants who are constantly moving about during a flight. Another important ergonomic problem for flight attendants has been the use of mobile carts. These carts weighing between 100 and 140 kg, are pushed and pulled, up and down the length of the cabin. Additionally, poor design and maintenance of the braking mechanisms on many of these carts have caused an increase in repetitive-strain injuries (RSIs) among flight attendants. Air carriers and cart manufacturers are now taking a more serious look at this equipment, with new designs resulting in ergonomic improvements.
Additional ergonomic problems result from the need to lift and carry heavy or bulky items in restricted spaces or, while maintaining uncomfortable body posture. Although, approximately 7 kg is the stipulated weight of a hand luggage, many passengers smuggle in enormous bags as hand luggage that barely fits in the overhead locker. Thus, when flight attendants lift these bags to store them in the overhead bins, their spine is subject to severe strain. Even baggage handlers at airports, are subject to the same ergonomic issues, as they often lift heavy baggage off the carousels. These workers are required to wear a ‘kidney belt’, when lifting baggage, with most of them declining to do so. After much trade union protests by baggage handlers worldwide, most airlines, today, have restricted the maximum limit to 32kg per bag. Of all cabin crew manual handling injuries, handling passengers’ hand luggage came a close second to the use of trolleys (food, drinks and duty free carts). On average, cabin crew handle passenger hand luggage nearly 5 times per flight.
Passengers also experience discomfort or even strain to their body parts, due to ergonomic factors. Many complains are heard for the lack of ‘leg space’, especially, in long distance flights. The situation is further agravated by most Asian passengers having excess baggage within their leg/foot space. This could lead to discomfort and lower limb pain due to continuous muscular contractions and sometimes pressure on nerves and blood vessels. This status also contributes to swelling of feet and deep-vein thrombosis, (DVT), a dreadful condition. Pregnant passengers are more affected. Arms rests could also be mentioned as an issue. Many airline seats have narrow arms rests, which could only be used by one of the passengers on either and not both, especially, if one passenger has large arms. This leads to discomfort on long flights. Seat placement and the extent to which the back rest could be moved, also contribute to discomfort and neck pain while sleeping.
New Generation (NG) airliners have taken into consideration ergonomic assessment and workplace design improvements. Most NG airliners have identified the critical ergonomic hot spots and evaluated these to meet compliance requirements, while increasing safety, efficiency and productivity.

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