14. Pilot study

When the airline pilots’ union BALPA carried out bodymapping exercises with flight crew members, neck and shoulder pain was highlighted repeatedly in bright marker pen splodges on the body maps. What was striking was the direct correlation between rank and the side of neck that was painful. Captains suffered pain on one side of the neck and First Officers in the other. What was the cause?

Aviation rules changed after 9/11 and flight deck doors are now locked during flights, only opened once the pilot has looked at a video screen to check who is asking to enter the cockpit. The video screens are placed by the door, which is behind the pilots, forcing them to twist in their seats whenever they check the video screen. As Captains always sit in the left-hand seat and the First Officer in the right seat, they twist in different directions, resulting in the pain occurring in different sides of the body.

The evidence is compelling and obvious – and importantly doesn’t require the safety reps to have any kind of specialist medical expertise. In some airlines, BALPA has already negotiated successfully for the screens to be moved to a position in front of the pilots, removing the hazard causing the health problem altogether.

Safety reps are legally entitled to paid time off to carry out regular inspections of the workplace, to proactively identify health and safety issues. There is absolutely no reason why bodymapping cannot be carried out as a form of inspection. If you’ve never done a bodymapping exercise with the workers you represent, give it a try.

See the full ‘Pilot study’ photofile.