Health and safety at workplaces in the mature Western economies get a lot of attention. Many companies are paranoid about their duty of care towards employees and clients who visit their premises.

Not so airlines. Or not, at least, once employees and clients get as far as the aircraft. Actually, according to industrial statistics, just walking across the apron to the airliner's steps puts you in one of the most dangerous workplaces in the world but the focus of this piece is health and safety on the aircraft themselves. Things are allowed to happen there that would be unthinkable in any other Western workplace. Why?

Maybe the industry is still, historically and culturally, under the influence of the days when civil flying was for daredevils and military flying - even in peacetime - was extremely dangerous. People just accepted it it was even seen as a part of its glamour.

But why, today, are airline crews and passengers allowed to be at risk of breathing toxic chemicals in cabin air, especially when the risk has been known about since the 1950s, and when a commercial off-the-shelf solution could remove the risk entirely?

What is so disturbing is that nothing has been done despite the fact that there is a massive quantity of evidence about toxic events in aircraft cabins: our feature on the subject this week only touches the surface of the official information that's available. If any company in a sophisticated Western economy owned a conventional workplace that was known to be subject to incidents involving contaminated air with toxic characteristics, there would be no waiting for the level of proof that's required in a civil court case before they acted to eliminate the risk.

But all sections of the aviation industry - including some of its regulators - are in cahoots here, and they are demanding to be presented with every minuscule scientific fact about the nature of the toxins and their precise effect on human health before they act. The secondary risk - that of incapacitated pilots being unable to manage an aircraft safely - is apparently something that leaves the regulators completely unfazed, despite the fact that it has happened.

But things are changing. We said recently: "At present the air transport industry [is] where the tobacco industry was in the 1970s and 1980s when it was officially denying that its products were a major cause of lung cancer." The ongoing scientific tests are important, but the industry should not wait for the results before installing bleed air filters.

Would passengers fly if they knew the risks?

Source: Flight International