A Health and Safety Evaluation at an Airline Catering Facility

Posted on by Jessica Ramsey,MS,CPE and Kristin Musolin,DO,MS


The airline industry predicts that more than 24 million people will fly during the Thanksgiving holiday this year. If you are one of those passengers, chances are that you’ll have a snack or a soda on your way to your destination. Before reaching your seat, those snacks, beverages, and meals are prepared, assembled, and delivered by a catering company. In a recent Health Hazard Evaluation (HHE) report, we described our evaluation of a catering facility in Michigan. We conducted the evaluation at the request of a union representing airline catering employees. The union was concerned about risks for musculoskeletal disorders, working in extreme hot and cold temperatures, job stress, and injuries in the facility’s kitchen and loading docks.

The company employed approximately 500 people over two shifts and operated from a 213,000-square foot building. The company catered for one major airline, servicing 16 international flights and 220 to 260 domestic flights per day. Employees prepared food, beverages, and amenities such as napkins, sugar packets, and stir sticks, and placed them in drawers. The drawers were then placed on food service carts, which were loaded onto trucks and delivered to the plane. Most employees worked eight-hour shifts with a 30-minute lunch break and an additional 20-minute break. Occasionally, employees worked voluntary overtime.

What We Did

To assess risks for musculoskeletal injuries, we observed workplace conditions, processes, and practices. We measured the heights of work stations and distances for reach, and noted the availability of anti-fatigue mats and personal protective equipment.

To address exposure to cold, we sampled two cold rooms where employees worked for three to eight hours per eight-hour shift. We collected information on factors that can influence an employee’s response to cold, including air temperature, air velocity, humidity, physical activity, work/rest schedule, and type of protective clothing worn. Additionally to assess heat exposure, we evaluated environmental conditions in the autoclave and hot food areas.

Because of concern about possible carbon monoxide exposures, we measured concentrations in the loading and unloading dock to assess whether exhaust from diesel-powered vehicles was entering the docks. We talked to managers and employees about the operation of powered vehicles and any problems they may have encountered with exhaust from powered vehicles.

In addition to conducting sampling and analysis, we reviewed standard operating procedures for different departments, an employee roster, and copies of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Form 300 Log of Work-Related Injuries and Illnesses for the last four years. While on site, we held confidential, voluntary interviews with employees we selected at random to be representative of all employees by sex, job title, length of employment with the company, and work shift. We discussed their workplace practices, medical history, job stress, psychosocial factors at work, and health and safety concerns.

What We Found

We found that some employees used awkward postures and repetitive motions while doing their jobs. These factors increased their risk for work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the shoulders, back, and arms. The most common injuries reported on the logs were musculoskeletal strain, sprain, or pain. Employees reported diesel exhaust entering the loading docks during winter days. Employees reported health concerns from hot and cold temperatures. No confined space entry procedures were in place for cleaning the autoclave. Employees also reported time pressure, high workload, lack of social support, and limited access to resources as common sources of job stress.

The following are among the actions we recommended.  More information including all recommendations can be found in the HHE report.

  • To reduce risk of musculoskeletal injuries, provide adjustable equipment such as work tables with adjustable height, and educate employees about musculoskeletal disorders.
  • For the autoclave, develop a written cleaning procedure, and follow standards and guidelines for confined spaces, lockout/tagout, and personal protective equipment.
  • Rotate employees to different job tasks after each break.
  • Provide safety and health information to employees in meaningful ways, including information in languages other than English where appropriate.
  • Evaluate using liner gloves for employees that they might wear for insulation against cold under the plastic gloves required for sanitation.
  • Develop a heat stress prevention program and institute other measures to prevent heat stress.
  • To prevent carbon monoxide exposure from truck exhaust, park trucks away from the building, especially during morning start-up in the winter, and keep dock doors closed while trucks are not docked.
  • To prevent more serious health problems, encourage employees to report work-related symptoms to their supervisor.

If you’re flying for the holiday next week, we hope you travel safely. As you sip your soda or partake in your peanuts, think about those workers who brought you your in-flight snacks.

If you would like to read more Health Hazard Evaluation reports, you can search by state, industry, or hazard on our website.

Jessica Ramsey, MS, CPE is an industrial hygienist and ergonomist in the Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch at NIOSH.

Kristin Musolin, DO, MS is a medical officer/occupational medicine physician in the Hazard Evaluations and Technical Assistance Branch at NIOSH.

Posted on by Jessica Ramsey,MS,CPE and Kristin Musolin,DO,MS

10 comments on “A Health and Safety Evaluation at an Airline Catering Facility”

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Page last reviewed: July 12, 2019
Page last updated: July 12, 2019