When most of us dreamed of becoming pilots as kids, the furthest thing from our mind was that flying might not be a physically healthy career. We all knew there with some risks inherent to the aircraft and flying them, as far as mechanical failures and non-normals, but we soon learned that with enough training and experience, we could minimize those risks to very low levels. Unfortunately after all our hard work and achieving our dream job of flying the line, we are exposed to many occupational health hazards. However, we can apply our years of learning how to mitigate risk as well as our pilot discipline, to also minimize most of the health hazards we face.
The first step towards protecting our health & longevity so we can fly until age 65 and beyond, is gaining awareness of these hazards. Here are few of the top hazards we face in no order of priority, because the significance of each hazard varies individually depending on our genetic predisposition and lifestyle, as well as our current state of health:
Long term Sitting. Long term sitting is linked to shorter lifespan no matter what career and has been stigmatized as the “new cancer”. If you’re sitting for a long time, it means you’re sedentary which leads to a myriad of health problems and higher risk of all disease over the long term. (Long term) Sitting is also not ideal for the integrity of the spine and over time can lead to many ergonomic and bio-mechanical issues with the lower back and the discs of the spine. Risk of blood clots and Deep Vein Thrombosis also increases with periods of long term sitting.
- Circadian Rhythm (Sleep-Wake Cycle) Disruption. Sleep is the foundation of our health, more so than diet or exercise. If you’re not sleeping consistently well, you can expect your health to suffer in every other area. A regular sleep schedule is critical to our health, yet our airline careers usually mean very random flight schedules and thus very random sleep schedules, leading to interrupted sleep patterns and jetlag. Even if you’re on a consistent flight and sleep schedule, but it is redeye based, (on the backside of the clock), that too is linked to shorter lifespan and higher risk of all diseases. Human biology is engineered for us to be awake during daylight hours and sleeping at night.
- Low Humidity Cabin Air. The air at altitude is already very dry and becomes even dryer once it enters the aircraft through the bleed air and aircraft packs. Low humidity cabin air over time can increase risk of dehydration, but more hazardous is that the ultra-low humidity impedes the proper functioning of the villi hairs inside our nose and sinus membranes, and the protective mucus lining of the sinuses also dry out and we are no longer as protected from trapping airborne pathogens & toxins. This problem is further exacerbated when we layover in air-conditioned hotels where we can’t open the windows, and the room air is just as dry. Over time, many aircrew experience higher rates of chronic sinusitis.
- (High-altitude Ionizing Radiation) Galactic Cosmic Ray Exposure. For most of us, this hazard presents a negligible risk unless we fly higher latitude routes (closer to Earth’s poles), fly a lot, fly at higher flight levels, or unknowingly fly during a cosmic radiation event or solar flare event. This background radiation exposure can be compounded by additional ultraviolet light radiation during day time flying. Radiation exposure has a cumulative effect on our whole body as well as are eyes.
- Carcinogen Exposure on the Tarmac. During our pre-flight walk-around inspection, depending on the aircraft, we are exposed to known carcinogens such as Jet-A fuel, residual turbine exhaust fumes, carbon fiber brake dust if the fans are on. There is also the bio-hazard risk of walking too close to the lavatory servicing cart and having it spill on you, or having a cart run over you at night – it has happened many times!
- Hearing loss. This hazard needs no introduction.
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These are just a few of the most common occupational health hazards we are at risk of every time we fly. A few others include hemorrhoids, kidney stones and bed bugs. My only goal today is to raise our awareness. Of course I would not concern you with any of these hazards if there were not plenty of defenses and strategies we could put into place to minimize them, but I will save those for next time as I delve into each hazard. Many defenses are common sense and I’m sure many of you are already doing a great job protecting your health so can continue living the dream for years to come.