Safety seminar focuses on aircraft accidents and passenger awareness

Posted: Tuesday, March 21, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Aircraft accidents are the leading cause of on-the-job deaths in Alaska, and the health specialists who had a hand in reducing the fatality rates in commercial fishing and logging have begun taking a hard look at flight safety.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health held an aviation passenger safety seminar here Monday. It was aimed at how workers can stay safe and alive when their jobs require them to fly, and the information was aimed more at passengers than at pilots.

''In the years we've studied, a third of the fatal crashes in Alaska were survivable,'' said NIOSH safety and environmental health specialist Jan Manwaring. ''We know that even in the event of a crash, you can walk away.''

According to the study presented by Diana Bensyl, an institute epidemic intelligence service officer, 32 percent of all the state's work-related fatalities were caused by aircraft crashes, while 29 percent occurred in the fishing industry.

The number of occupational deaths have dropped overall in Alaska, but the percentage of aviation-involved deaths remains high, officials said.

Passengers can boost their odds of surviving plane crashes by knowing where the survival gear is stored, by refusing to fly in bad weather conditions -- especially if they've chartered the flight -- and by dressing properly if they're headed to remote locations in extreme weather, safety officials said.

Safety in the air begins well before the plane takes off, said Brian Horner, president of Learn to Return Training Systems Inc. That Alaska-based company teaches people to survive disasters, including airplane crashes.

His company routinely trains government and industry employees to escape crashes, even in open water, and survive until rescuers arrive.

''Look around you and find the exits,'' Horner said. ''And look at the passengers around you. Look at who might get in your way, and think about ways you could help them out, too.''

He urged that if people do nothing else, they should learn basic first-aid skills.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health opened its Alaska office in 1991 specifically to investigate Alaska's high fatality rates in its most dangerous occupations. Since working with both of those industries, fatalities in the fishing industry have dropped by more than 40 percent, the agency's Manwaring said, and logging deaths have dropped by 17 percent.

''Now we're turning our attention to aviation,'' Manwaring said. ''People need to know they've got rights, and they have more power than they may think they do to survive these kinds of incidents.''

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