Most aircraft passengers fly only a few trips each year in a comfortable and accommodating setting, so the cabin poses little risk for them. It is quite the opposite, however, for cabin crew members, including pilots and flight attendants. Cabin crew members may spend up to 1,000 hours flying annually, and during that time they are exposed to a number of occupational and environmental hazards, including cosmic radiation, high levels of ambient noise, communicable diseases, and fatigue.

In this article, we take a comprehensive look at the top four working environment and health concerns for cabin crew members, as well as an overview of preventative strategies to reduce to their occupational exposures.

1. Cosmic Ionizing Radiation

Both cabin crew members and passengers are exposed to cosmic ionizing radiation on every flight. According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), cosmic ionizing radiation is a form of ionizing radiation that emanates from outer space. The majority of cosmic ionizing radiation exposure on aircrafts comes from galactic cosmic radiation—which is always present—and solar particle events, such as solar flares. While a very small amount of cosmic ionizing radiation reaches the earth on a daily basis, at aircraft flight altitudes the exposure to galactic cosmic radiation is significantly higher (see 9 Common Sources of Radiation in the Home and Workplace to find out more about our everyday exposure to radiation down here at ground level).

Health Effects

Due to the high exposure levels at aircraft flight altitude, there is an increased risk of fatal cancer. Cosmic ionizing radiation has also been linked to reproductive issues, such as miscarriages and birth defects. For instance, genetic defects can be passed on to a child as the result of radiation received by the parents before the child was conceived.

Recommended Limits of Occupational Exposure

According to the Federal Aviation Association (FAA), the recommended limit of occupational exposure to ionizing radiation for a cabin crew member is a 5-year average effective dose of 20 millisieverts per year, with no more than 50 millisieverts in a single year. For pregnant cabin crew members, the recommended limit is 1 millisievert, with no more than 0.5 millisievert in any single month.

Reducing Occupational Exposure

Cabin crew members can reduce their occupational exposure to ionizing radiation by working on shorter flights at lower altitudes. At lower altitudes, there is more radiation shielding because of the amount of air above the aircraft, as well as shielding provided by the earth’s magnetic field. This shielding is at its maximum near the equator and gradually decreases to zero as the aircraft flies north or south.

2. Circadian Rhythm Disruption (Jet Lag)

Shift work, working nights, and traveling across time zones can disrupt an individual’s normal sleeping pattern, which in turn affects their circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is popularly known as the internal biological clock and it is responsible for regulating bodily functions based on an individual’s wake/sleep cycle. Because of the nature of their work, cabin crew members experience disruptions in the circadian rhythms, which is commonly known as jet lag.

Health Concerns

Disruptions to normal sleep patterns can lead to fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and changes in mood, as well as stomach and intestinal symptoms (see Sleep Deprivation and Worker Safety to learn more about the associated risks). A study conducted by NIOSH found that there was an increase in the risk of miscarriage among flight attendants who worked more than 15 hours during the first trimester of pregnancy. Furthermore, disruptions to the circadian rhythm can also result in abnormal hormone levels (for more information, see this infographic on The Unnerving Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation).

Reducing Occupational Exposure

  • Keep the same sleep and wake schedule, even on weekends
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine close to bedtime
  • Reduce time working on very long flights
  • Reduce the number of time zones you cross
  • Use earplugs and eye masks to reduce noise and light when sleeping

3. Musculoskeletal Disorders

Cabin crew members are at risk for sprains and strains from lifting, bending, reaching, carrying, working in confined spaces and using repetitive motion. There is also the added risk of falls due to imbalances while experiencing turbulence (check out The 5 Key Ways to End Up With a Musculoskeletal Disorder to find out more).

Reducing Occupational Exposure

  • Limit awkward body postures, such as a bent or twisted back, and repetitive movements for extended periods of time
  • Avoid heavy or overhead lifting, and forceful pushing or pulling (follow these Top 10 Lifting Rules)
  • If pregnant, reduce or eliminate stooping, bending, or twisting at the waist

4. Cabin Air Quality

Concerns have been raised regarding the possible health effects on cabin crew members health as it relates to cabin air quality. On all modern aircrafts, both cabin crew members and passengers breathe a mixture of fresh and re-circulated air. During flight, air is derived from the compression stage of the jet engine, which is then conditioned and filtered 20-30 times per hour.

Health Concerns

Potential cabin air hazards include:

  • Ventilation hazards including carbon monoxide, ozone, and carbon dioxide levels
  • Cabin altitude and pressurization changes—normal people can tolerate a reduction in oxygen partial pressure up to around 10,000 feet, above this oxygen partial pressure will reduce rapidly, impairing brain function
  • Contamination from the breakdown of heated engine oil or hydraulic fluid (remember, the engine "produces" the air)

Reducing Occupational Exposure

Unfortunately, research into cabin air quality is fairly new. At this time, there isn't much that cabin crew members themselves can do to improve the quality of the air they are exposed to while at work. They should, however, be aware of any procedures that their company may have in place for dealing with these exposures. Additionally, it is the company’s job to ensure that the aircraft is well maintained, including the components responsible for the recirculating of air within the cabin. If cabin crew members have any concerns about these exposures, it is recommended that they consult with their primary physician.

Safety Comes First

One of the most essential parts of being a successful cabin crew member is being up-to-date with all health and safety procedures. Therefore, it is crucial that pilots and flight attendants attend the necessary training sessions so that they can ensure the safety and well-being of not only themselves, but of that of their passengers as well.