Being a flight attendant is often seen as a glamorous job, jet-setting around the world and enjoying perks like free travel. However, it also comes with real risks and challenges. Here we’ll examine if being a flight attendant qualifies as a high risk occupation.
What are the main risks of being a flight attendant?
Some of the major risks and challenges flight attendants face include:
- Turbulence – Sudden turbulence can lead to injuries if flight attendants are not seated. Severe cases can even lead to broken bones or head trauma if attendants are thrown about the cabin.
- Angry and violent passengers – Dealing with unruly passengers is an unfortunate reality. Verbal harassment and physical violence do sometimes occur.
- Injuries from moving heavy items – Attendants must often lift heavy carts and bags, risking back injuries or sprains.
- Fatigue and jetlag – Frequent time zone changes and early/late hours take a toll and are linked to chronic fatigue.
- Fumes and pathogens – Cabin fumes from engine leaks and travelers’ illnesses lead to health risks.
- Emergency situations – Whether it’s a medical issue, electronics fire, or emergency landing, attendants must be prepared to respond.
- Radiation exposure – Higher radiation levels at flight altitudes increase cancer risks.
Let’s explore some of these risks areas more in depth:
Turbulence is an unavoidable part of air travel. When updrafts and downdrafts in the atmosphere create rough air, the plane will shake. This can range from minor bumpiness to jolts severe enough to throw people out of their seats. Flight attendants are especially susceptible since they aren’t always able to take a seat when the seat belt sign is on.
Minor turbulence happens frequently, but injuries are uncommon. However, one study found that severe turbulence was experienced on 59% of long-haul wide-body flights. When turbulence was moderate or greater, 12.2% of cabin crew members were injured over the prior year.
The most frequent injuries from turbulence are to the neck and back (sprains, fractures, dislocations), head injury, and extremity injuries from falls. In rare cases, turbulence can even be fatal. Several flight attendants have died from severe turbulence over the past few decades.
Angry and violent passengers
Having to deal directly with travelers under stressful situations means flight attendants also have an increased risk of verbal abuse and violent assaults. A recent survey of over 5,000 flight attendants found that:
- 10% experienced a physical assault in the past year
- Over half (56%) faced verbal abuse
- 1 in 5 were the target of sexual harassment from passengers
While physical assaults aren’t extremely common, the threat still exists and many attendants report anxiety over unruly passengers. The close quarters in aircraft cabins also means there’s little escape if a violent situation arises.
Injuries from moving heavy items
A big part of a flight attendant’s job is loading service carts, stowing luggage, and lifting heavy bags. This requires repetitive heavy lifting, which takes a toll on the back and shoulders.
One study of injuries in a major airline found that flight attendants suffered over 2000 occupational injuries on the job annually. The most frequent injuries were to the back and shoulder, making up 41% of incidents. Lower back pain and rotator cuff tears were some of the most common issues.
Proper lifting techniques and using wheeled carts can reduce injury risk. But heavy lifting occupational hazards still exist and many long-time flight attendants develop chronic back pain as a result.
How do flight attendant health risks compare to other occupations?
To better evaluate if being a flight attendant qualifies as a high-risk occupation, it helps to compare the job’s risks to other careers. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles data on work-related injuries and illnesses across different professions.
Here is a summary of the incident rates for flight attendants compared to all US workers and those in other common occupations:
|Occupation||Injuries & Illnesses per 100 Workers|
As you can see, flight attendants have an injury rate of 7 per 100 workers annually. This is nearly 2.5 times greater than the average across all US occupations. It is on par with nursing assistants, and slightly lower than material movers like warehouse workers.
For illnesses, flight attendants also have substantially higher rates than average. They report illnesses at a rate of 5.7 per 100 workers per year. The national average is below half that rate, at 2.1 illnesses per 100 workers.
Among all occupations measured, flight attendants rank in the top 15% for highest injury and illness rates. Their injury rate is comparable to construction workers, truck drivers, and electrical power installers.
What types of illnesses are flight attendants prone to?
Let’s discuss some specific illnesses flight attendants face higher risks for:
Several large studies have linked working as a flight attendant to higher cancer rates. One study followed over 5000 flight attendants for a median of 15 years. Researchers found attendants had a 51% higher rate of breast cancer compared to the general population.
Cancers of the thyroid, uterus, cervix, gastrointestinal system, and skin melanoma were also more common. Ionizing radiation is thought to be a contributing factor to these higher cancer incidences.
COVID-19 has posed a substantial threat to flight crews’ health. Long hours in crowded planes make viral spread a huge hazard. One survey in the first year of the pandemic found:
- 43% of flight attendants said they came into contact with a COVID positive passenger
- 2 in 5 contracted the virus themselves
- 20% required hospitalization as a result
Mask policies, HEPA filters, and increased cleaning have reduced risks. But viral spread remains an ongoing concern given new variants and waning immunity.
Fatigue & Jet lag
Flight attendant schedules often involve early mornings, late nights, long haul flights, and quick turnarounds. This erratic schedule disrupts circadian rhythms and is tied to fatigue.
Studies suggest fatigue and disrupted sleep are widespread issues in the profession. Fatigue leads to impaired alertness and performance. It also harms long term health by increasing risks for chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.
The dry air in flight cabins frequently causes skin issues in crew members. Dehydration, skin dryness, eczema, and contact dermatitis are commonly reported in over 30% of flight attendants.
Frequent hand washing and sanitizing due to COVID-19 has also led to dry, cracked skin on hands. The circulation issues caused by long periods of standing during flights also lead to swollen ankles, leg edema, and varicose veins for many attendants.
The noise levels in aircraft cabins are quite high, especially during take-off and landing. Studies show the average noise exposure for attendants exceeds recommended limits.
Over years of flights, this chronic noise exposure takes a toll. Research indicates flight attendants have a higher prevalence of hearing loss and tinnitus than the general public.
Reviewing the data makes a compelling case that being a flight attendant qualifies as a high-risk occupation.
Compared to other careers, flight attendants have very high rates of injury and illness. The most frequent risks come from turbulence, unruly passengers, heavy lifting, and circulating viruses in confined cabins.
But attendants also face longer term health impacts, including much higher rates of several cancers, hearing loss, fatigue, skin disorders, and communicable illnesses.
While flight attendants do receive safety training, there is inherent risk involved with working in the confined space of an aircraft for long periods. Hazards like severe turbulence cannot be entirely mitigated.
Given these clear risks, both acute and long term, flying does appear to come with substantial health and safety hazards. So although a glamorous profession, data shows being a flight attendant qualifies as a high risk occupation compared to other jobs.