CDC study assesses risk factors for pilot fatalities

Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A federal study out this week has pinpointed some of the risk factors associated with the high number of pilot fatalities in Alaska.

The study looked at 675 work-related crashes in Alaska from 1990 to 1999 and found that flights that crashed in poor visibility were more likely to be fatal than those that occurred in clear weather. The odds of a pilot dying were also higher for those who didn't wear shoulder harnesses.

The report prepared by the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health was published Friday in the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

''Now we need to try to figure out, based on these risk factors, what we can suggest to the aviation community and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to reduce the risk of aviation fatalities, based on these risk factors,'' said Diana Bensyl, the NIOSH researcher who wrote the report.

Aviation crashes are the leading cause of work-related deaths in Alaska. Alaska pilots have 100 times the occupational death rate of all U.S. workers and five times the death rate for all pilots operating in the United States.

The rate of work-related aviation fatalities surpassed the rate of deaths in the commercial fishing and logging industries during the late 1990s as those industries improved their safety records. NIOSH is currently focusing its efforts on bringing down the number of worker deaths in plane crashes.

Of the 675 crashes studied, the pilots survived in 567.

The study found that the likelihood of pilot death was 14 times higher when a fire occurred after the crash, seven times higher for flights that crashed in instrument meteorological conditions and two times higher for crashes that occurred away from an airport or in darkness.

The likelihood of a pilot dying was significantly lower when a shoulder restraint was used. However, the study notes that information about the use of shoulder harnesses was missing for a substantial proportion of the fatal crashes studied.

Bensyl said the findings could help the aviation industry and the FAA develop technology and practices to reduce work-related fatalities. She cited, as examples, improved fuel systems that are less likely to ignite in crashes and company policies that discourage flying in poor weather.

Such changes can be made by air carriers without additional regulations.

''Rulemaking is not our goal. We'd like the operators and different groups to make the decisions and choices themselves,'' Bensyl said.

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