Safety in Aviation Industry
Engr. Peter O. Onyeri

By Engr. Peter O. Onyeri


Work is an essential component of human existence. Right from the early days when man lived in caves and under huge rocks, he had to work by moving from one place to the other in search of food. With time he had to engage in agriculture using improvised instruments to boost his food supply. He had to fashion out some form of protection for himself as his work activities in search of food exposed him to attack from wild beasts and fellow men. With time, the need for development started driving growth in civilization and man progressed to some form of organized communal living and method of work using crude implements aimed at improving his work efficiency and better protection from his environment and work methods.

Until the 1700s, production methods were still labour-intensive with work being done by hand in cottages. However, all these changed following the Industrial Revolution that started in Britain in the second half of the 18th century and resulting in the organization of work into large units such as factories (or forges or mills) in what was then known as the “factory system.” Unfortunately, these changes in production methods with their need for masses of workers also created hazards never before encountered. Men, women and children were employed to work in factories under very terrible conditions. Injuries, diseases and deformities were common with workers being killed, maimed or afflicted with all sorts of collateral ill health. The mass outcry against the sorrowful working conditions of adults and children in the factories gradually began to gather momentum leading to the birth of occupational health services and practice.


The International Labor Organization, ILO, Occupational Health Services Convention (No 161) defines “occupational health services” as services entrusted with essentially preventive functions and responsible for advising the employer, the workers and their representatives in the undertaking on the requirements for establishing and maintaining a safe and healthy working environment which will facilitate optimal physical and mental health in relation to work and the adaption of work to the capabilities of workers in the light of their state of physical and mental health. Such services are provided by occupational health and safety professionals. However, occupational health practice is broader and consists not only of the activities performed by the occupational health and safety professionals in occupational health service but a multidisciplinary and multisectoral activity involving other specialists both in the enterprise and outside, as well as competent authorities, the employers, workers and their representatives. Such involvement requires a well-developed system at the workplace with an infrastructure that should comprise all the administrative, organizational and operative systems that are needed to conduct the occupational health practice successfully and ensure its systematic development and continuous improvement.


Aviation is the science of flying. In commercial aviation on which this paper is anchored, aviation is not just a science, it is an industry. It is a business area involving not just the activity of flight operations but other ancillary business activities as in air navigation services, aircraft maintenance services, metrological services, airport terminal operations, cargo and baggage handling, catering, airport car parking and hotels etc. It is a system of activities that include and support the flying activity.  The growth of the industry is necessary for the economic development of a country and indeed the world’s economy. It, therefore, means that its enhancement by any means is most positive. Occupational Health Safety, OHS, is a clearly identifiable area through which aviation can be enhanced, by effective and efficient management of its related risks to personnel for safety.

Safety is an everyday practice that requires everyone contributing in other to achieve a safe and healthy environment. It is a vast subject area that has many definitions from different authors, professionals and organization. The International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, defines it as the state in which the risk of harm to persons or property damage is reduced to, and or below an acceptable level through a continuing process of hazard identification and risk management. The World Health Organization, WHO defines it as the act of maintaining the health condition.  This paper takes the WHO viewpoint because it has health as its central theme. Safety practice is found in all aspects of human endeavour because of the universal value attached to life. In the transportation industry, safety covers such areas like road, rail, marine and aviation. This paper is focused on safety practice in the aviation industry as aviation safety”. However, a commonality exists in all of the practice, in OHS by the fact that it is concerned with protecting personnel in the workplace from collateral ill health and disablements arising from his working in a particular environment. The borderline between health and safety is ill-defined and the two words are normally used together to indicate concern for the physical and mental well-being of the individual at the place of work.

International aviation safety, as regulated by ICAO, is directed at protecting an aircraft from accident conditions. James Reason, renowned Professor of Psychology at the University of Manchester noted that there are two kinds of accidents: those that happen to individuals and those that happen to organizations. In aviation, safety is seen largely from a viewpoint of accidents that happen to organizations otherwise called organizational accidents. These are the comparatively rare, but often catastrophic events that occur within complex modern technologies such as nuclear power plants, commercial aviation, the petrochemical industry, chemical process plants, marine and rail transport, banks and stadiums. In the Annex 13 of the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, an accident is defined as an occurrence associated with the operation of an aircraft that takes place between the time any person boards the aircraft with the intention of flight and the time all such persons have disembarked, and in which any person (occupant or nonoccupant) suffers a fatal or serious injury or the aircraft receives substantial damage. To ICAO, “safety” begins and ends with the passenger, the fee-paying passenger in an operating aircraft that has to be protected from involvement in an accident. It is a purely revenue-driven mentality because of how ICAO was formed through the Chicago Convention of 1944 to harness the opportunities inherent in the hitherto leisure and military (the 2nd World war) enterprise for commercial benefits.

This explains the existing conflict in aviation safety: should it continue to be restricted to aircraft accident prevention or extended to embrace all other relevant areas of risk to aviation. In the United States Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, although aviation was one of FAA’s responsibilities, occupational safety and health were not.  Yet, when the FAA created the position of Director of Safety for airlines, they did not limit his/her activities to “aviation safety” as he was “to develop and implement a comprehensive safety program… including all aspects of flight and ground operations, maintenance programs, and passenger safety”. In the Nigerian Air Force, NAF, the Directorate of Safety was created to oversee safety in the NAF with a safety policy geared towards reducing aircraft accidents and its associated human and material losses.

Occupational health safety issues in aviation are carefully separated and regulated for management, differently from “aviation safety”. The cockpit crew must not be influenced by anything that can imperil the flight or aircraft in operation. The occupational health and safety standards applicable to these people are not as regulated under conventional health and safety laws but those specially designed and accepted under international civil aviation laws as safe for flight operations. A lot of these are therefore captured as “human factors” issues in aviation safety and not occupational health safety. The workforce in other areas of aviation is covered under health and safety regulations in a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, between the relevant Health and Safety Administration and the Civil Aviation Authority. Consequently, the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, OSHA in the US; the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority, UK CAA and the Health & Safety Regulation and elsewhere with advanced aviation safety systems have MOUs that cover the work of flight attendants. Aircraft maintenance and ground support personnel, manufacturing and assembly, hanger and other maintenance shop operations, painting & stripping, ramp and flight line operations, baggage handling, cleaning crew activities and airport operations are however covered under occupational health and safety standards used for workers generally in industries. In Nigeria, occupational health and safety is still regulated under an archaic Factories Act that has outlived its usefulness even though the legislature has gone far with the passage of a bill that will radically transform the practice of occupational health safety in Nigeria.

In the military, there are specific guidelines, programs and responsibilities concerning Air Force occupational safety. Like all workplaces, the Air Force has a safety program to help reduce occupational safety hazards but under very stringent requirements governed by an MOU, as in commercial aviation.


Almost all of the interest areas of conventional OHS are also focused on in aviation safety: electrical hazards, fire hazards, confined spaces, slips and falls, exits and entrances, gaseous effluents, dust hazard, carbon monoxide poisoning, work equipment hazards, working at heights, medical and first aid, alcohol/drug use, noise, dangerous goods handling, personal protective equipment, ergonomics, physiological, psychosocial and psychological factors, office and work environment, housekeeping, repetitive work, construction, lockout/tag-out etc.

Poor management of the risks in these OHS areas can lead to health conditions with implications on safety of the aircraft in flight operations: injuries and physical disablement, miscellaneous illnesses, physiological disorder, psychological disorder, memory loss, fatigue, stress, boredom, impaired judgment and decision making, risk-taking tendencies, complacency, and indiscipline etc. Many of these risk factors are the same things treated under “human factors” in aviation safety. It, therefore, means that the line separating OHS and aviation safety is thin. The final objective in the two areas, in aviation, is the same:  the safeguarding of life. The difference if any is only in the methodology or process towards reaching the objective. One works directly through risk management for the health of the person(s) albeit aircraft passengers while the other works indirectly through risk management for the aircraft carrying the person(s). They are all about “people and work”.

Granted that flight operations as the main focus of aviation is a very sensitive activity that demands maximum attention for its safety, this paper believes and argues that OHS and Safety Management System, SMS, under which aviation safety is articulated can be better managed than currently for the enhancement of the business of aviation and added value.


Recently at one of Nigeria’s major airports, a ramp vehicle belonging to a ground handling company rammed into a parked B747 being readied for an intercontinental flight. The deep hole opened on the body of the parked aircraft forced the flight to be cancelled. All the passengers scheduled for that flight were taken to a five-star hotel by the airline and accommodated for the two days it took the airline to arrange for another aircraft. The damaged aircraft was on the ground for one full week while aircraft engineers of the airline were flown in from abroad for the repair works. Subsequent investigations by aviation accident investigators with little or no training in occupational health issues were busy listing a lack of approved Standard Operating Procedures, faded ramp pavement markings and other aviation safety issues as causative factors while completely ignoring a very crucial health factor: the driver of the ramp vehicle was suffering from a loss of memory due a persistent family problem well known to his supervisors at the handling company. Of course, the airline and the ground handlers suffered huge losses from the “accident” or more technically appropriate from an ICAO viewpoint, the incident”.

Many of the recorded aircraft accidents in recent history are linked to OHS lapses at the maintenance hangar, at the ramp and the flight line leading to serious interruptions in aviation.

The lack of effective attention to OHS issues in aviation is a major source of losses in the aviation industry, especially as a business.  The near-total focus on “aviation risks” and the subdued attention or complete inattention to occupational health risks in the aviation industry, especially in Nigeria with very poorly developed occupational health standards does not allow for the optimization of risk management for aviation. The risk management focus in OHS is the health of the person while in aviation safety management or SMS, it is the aircraft. There is no way risk management optimization would be achieved since all efforts are not being properly annexed. A lot of health risk factors are being ignored, the way it is now, leading to very dire consequences. Proper integration of occupational health safety into aviation will help strengthen the aviation risk management process thus bringing about:

  • Improvement in accident prevention
  • Maximization of efficiency
  • Increase in profitability in the overall business outlook through improved loss reduction
  • Improvement in the growth profile
  • Reduction in insurance premium
  • Improved corporate reputation and goodwill.
  • Better health surveillance


Aircraft risk and occupational health risk factors are not the only ones militating against aviation in Nigeria, and indeed elsewhere. There are environmental risks, security risks, quality risks.

To maximize the opportunities in the industry, there will be a need to properly manage all the risks from these known sources. A case is therefore made for an integrated management system that will systematically, proactively and explicitly identify all the risks and manage them for added-value. The current approach is too much of a silos approach for efficiency and effectiveness. Too many risks are slipping through the safety net. It is, therefore, the contention of this paper that while the Aviation Safety Manager does not have to become an expert in occupational safety and health, he (she) does have to understand basic workplace safety and aircraft maintenance activities that are likely to produce damage or injury.

Beyond these, Occupational Health Safety practice in Nigeria needs to be strengthened through the passage of enabling laws for appropriate local safety standards that will further enhance aviation in Nigeria. The current situation where the practice relies on obsolete local labour laws and borrowed safety standards from foreign cultures is inimical to aviation in Nigeria. Government is therefore called upon to encourage the current effort by the Nigerian Institute of Safety Professionals, NISP to have the Bills on Occupational Health Safety in Nigeria, currently at the National Assembly, passed into law.

Paper presented by:
Engr. Peter O. Onyeri, BSc; MBA; MNSE; FNISP; CEng; PMP
General Manager of Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting Services (ARFFS)
Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria
At the National Defence College, Abuja
On the 17th of October, 2012




Let us know

Receive Alerts on: Whatsapp: +2348022417409 facebook: @SafetyRecordNG Twitter: @SafetyRecordNG, Share your story with us: SMS: +2348022417409, Whatsapp: +2348022417409, Email: