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Airport employees: We’re exposed to blood and vomit

Airport wheelchair attendant Celius Joseph hasn’t been trained to clean up blood and urine, but at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, he said, he does it all the time.

“The cut was from here to here,” he said, pointing from his knee to his ankle to describe an injury that recently left a passenger gushing blood after gashing himself while sitting down in an airport wheelchair.

Joseph and more than 20 other workers have filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation saying the companies they work for — Superior Aircraft Services, Bags Inc. and Direct Airline Services, and airlines U.S. Airways, Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways — have created an unsafe work environment at the airport, and violated passengers’ rights by not training and equipping wheelchair attendants to assist the sick, elderly and disabled.

Workers aren’t given gloves or sanitizer, Joseph said, so he wiped the blood off the injured passenger’s wheelchair the way he usually wipes off vomit and urine — with a paper towel from the bathroom, held in his bare hand.

Joseph, an employee of Bags Inc. and Superior Aircraft Services, gathered with other workers Thursday afternoon at a news conference organized by the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, which filed the workers’ complaints to OSHA and the Transportation Department.

In the complaints, workers said their lack of equipment and training leaves them at risk for exposure to blood-borne pathogens and violates disabled passengers’ rights under the federal Nondiscrimination on the Basis of Disability in Air Travel regulation, which requires carriers operating aircraft with 19 or more passengers to train employees to assist disabled passengers.

The workers said they’ve never had such training and often don’t know how to help disabled passengers, especially those they can’t easily communicate with.

And the wheelchairs they use to move disabled passengers are often unsafe, they said, stained with bodily fluids and missing wheels, brakes, handles or footrests.

Edson Jocelyn, who has worked for Superior Aircraft Services for seven years, said his job requires him to help disabled passengers to the bathroom, something he isn’t trained for.

If a passenger is heavy, he has trouble moving them.

If they’re female, he has to find a female wheelchair attendant to help them, and that can take 15 minutes.

SEIU 32BJ regional spokesman Michael Allen said OSHA had opened a file on the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport workers’ complaints, and he hoped to hear the results of their investigation within two months or so.

Florida SEIU 32BJ spokesman Eric Brakken said the problems were symptoms of corporate corner-cutting.

The union had filed a similar complaint on behalf of wheelchair attendants at Philadelphia International Airport last week, he said.

But Superior Aircraft Services CEO Barry Korman said statements from his employees about handling sick passengers were “just lies.”

“SEIU is stirring up a bunch of trouble,” he said. “We don’t transport any sick passengers. We call EMS.”

He said workers had also filed complaints to the National Labor Relations Board last month, and that he planned to sue the SEIU.

In a release issued after the news conference on Thursday afternoon, Bags Inc. spokeswoman D’Anne Mica wrote that the company hadn’t yet seen the complaints sent to OSHA, but that no workers had reported exposure to blood-borne pathogens.

Bags Inc. lets its employees pick up gloves when they clock in each day and trains them on how to handle blood, she wrote.

SEIU spokesman Brakken said the issues raised by the workers were serious, but fixable.

“There needs to be a minimum bar set for what we, as a county, deem acceptable,” he said.

The complaints requested the secretary of transportation to “impose appropriate penalties” on the airlines and contractors for violating federal regulations, and require them to work with organizations representing disabled people to develop a training curriculum for airport employees, and provide them with safe equipment.

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said at Thursday’s news conference that she had “grave concerns about what happens” at the airport, but believes that OSHA and the Transportation Department can help fix it.

“It’s an awful situation,” she said, “but I think it’s correctable.”