The rapidly spreading virus has long since jumped the airport fences and is threatening air cargo handling due to increasing infection rates among ground personnel. To avoid disruptions,
or even the complete gridlock of supply chains, ground handling agents, in coordination with airport management, should be urgently implementing impactful steps to stop the Omicron or Delta
variant from spreading.
Frankfurt-based Winfried Hartmann of Prime Aircargo Services presents his in-depth thoughts illustrating how an effective strategy could work.
Before a shift starts at a warehouse run by a ground handler or forwarding agent, employees line up to have their vaccination status documented or to show controllers the result of their latest rapid antigen test. A daily routine that stresses both employees and the checking personnel. When addressing the unvaccinated, answers like this are heard repeatedly: “I didn't have time yet,” “It’s unnecessary! We are colleagues and trust each other,” “It's all just a big fuss about nothing,” “I won't have anyone tell me whether or when to get vaccinated!” or “I don't trust the vaccination.”
Getting tired of excuses and complaints, some companies have already given up checking the vaccination status of their staff day-in, day-out, while others continue to meticulously obey the mandated regulations. That way, they can react quickly to an infection and prevent the virus from spreading and leading to a high number of sick leaves as a consequence.
Reluctant warehouse personnel
Currently 72.2% of Germany’s 83 million inhabitants are twice inoculated, with 45.1% having already received their booster shot. However, the vaccination rates of warehouse staff deviate significantly from these figures.
Why is this so? The reasons for this negligence have not yet been scientifically investigated, but are, according to general knowledge, very diverse: personal disinterest, a negative attitude towards vaccination, family disputes, or the conviction that a Covid-19 infection, although unpleasant, is not a real danger to health. The different cultural backgrounds in the workforce must certainly also be considered here.
Critical infrastructure is imperiled
Within the so-called critical infrastructure, worst-case emergency plans are being prepared regarding the spread of the Omicron variant: In the case of staff shortage, hospitals and clinics can no longer guarantee full health care for patients. Police and fire departments fail to perform some of their duties, and the energy and water supply is no longer fully guaranteed due to the fast-rising number of infected. Particularly in this field of critical infrastructure and public services, concepts have been developed to cope with staff shortages reaching 50%, to maintain basic service levels and provide elementary support for the common good.
Daunting challenges loom
Logistics is a key part of the critical infrastructure. Without logistics, there are no consumables in supermarkets, and gas stations soon run out of fuel, as witnessed in the UK. The same goes for air freight, which would collapse if infection rates among ground handling staff were to go through the roof. Particularly sensitive and temperature-critical global supply chains would come to a standstill. No doubt, a horror scenario, but unfortunately a realistic one if unvaccinated ground handlers continue to remain unwilling to get the jab.
If vaccination rates among floor staff do not dramatically improve within the next couple of weeks, cargo flows risk being disrupted by Omicron-infections. Absenteeism rates of 30-50% of operational personnel at a major freight terminal would significantly interrupt processes, jeopardizing the entire supply chain. Partial standstills and severe backlogs would be the result.
So, what is air freight doing to become resilient against the pandemic and its different waves? To simply wait and hope that everything will not turn out as badly as predicted, is not the best idea. It is far smarter to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
First, companies should do their utmost to increase their employees' acceptance of vaccination. In many cases, the obstacles to vaccination are not fundamental, but simply because there is no medical service nearby. Language problems are another obstacle. It would help if there was an in-house doctor on site to minimize existing thresholds fears, upping the vaccination rate.
Next, all employees could be assigned to fixed groups that belong to a certain shift and always work together in the same floor area. Mixing operational forces should be avoided because it supports the spread of the virus. However, a critical point are unavoidable contacts between pick-up and delivery personnel and delivery and collection personnel, for which no certificates are required when stepping on a warehouse ramp.
Finally, it would be essential to organize long-term shift planning of ground handling personnel and prevent staff from arranging to swap shifts.
Implementing “corona officers”
The highest risk factor for infection is private behavior outside the workplace. If work teams are formed, at least the traceability of infection chains would be possible, preventing the further spread of the virus, hence avoiding the contagion of most if not all employees.
It would be helpful, if ground handling agents would introduce a designated “corona officer” who informs and looks after the health of the employees. At large hub airports, these corona officers should become members of a crisis team to better assess the infection situation and coordinate counter steps if needed.
These thoughts may seem exaggerated, but with increasing infection numbers in the air cargo industry, one should be well prepared to deal with the virus in a resilient manner. Incidentally, one of the colleagues quoted at the beginning of this article went to get vaccinated the very day after his soccer club told him that his teammates would no longer allow him in without a jab. Sometimes social pressure also helps.
Winfried Hartmann, Head of Strategic Planning, Prime Aircargo Services GmbH
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