Belgian study reveals that air crew are insufficiently informed about cosmic radiation risks

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FANC sets up an action plan after a survey among pilots and cabin crew

Pilots and cabin crew receive too little information from airline companies about the possible risks of cosmic radiation. This is the result of a survey carried out by the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) in cooperation with the Belgian Cockpit Association (BeCA), the professional association that represents Belgian airline pilots.

Each year, the FANC monitors the radiation dose received by about 4,000 aircrew members. In addition, airline companies are legally obliged to proactively inform their employees about the health risks that their work entails. In order to check whether employees actually receive this information, the FANC organised a survey in collaboration with the Belgian Cockpit Association (BeCA). This professional association distributed the survey through its network and to its 600 affiliated pilots. A total of 400 answered questionnaires have been returned to the FANC. Therefore, these results apply to 10% of aircrew regularly exposed to cosmic radiation.

Overall, the survey reveals that aircrew members receive too little information about the potential risks, that they are not sufficiently aware of their own exposure values and that female staff members are insufficiently informed about the hazards for the unborn child in case of pregnancy. As a matter of fact, embryos and foetuses are more sensitive to ionising radiation than adults.

66% of the respondents answer that their employer has never informed them about their exposure to cosmic radiation. However, most are aware of this phenomenon, either because they have looked up information or because they have discussed the topic with colleagues and professional associations.

Only 13% of the respondents say that they receive information about their individual exposure directly from their employer. Almost a third state that this information is not available. In 55% of cases, the information is available for consultation somewhere, but it is up to the employee to take the initiative to look it up. 15% of respondents do not do so.

When pregnant, female aircrew members are exposed to occupational risks, including cosmic radiation. Most pregnant aircrew members (83%) stop flying as soon as they submit their pregnancy declaration to their employer. 9% continue to fly after filing this declaration and 8% do not declare their pregnancy immediately in order to be allowed to continue flying and thus suffer less wage loss. Half of the women have not been informed by their employer about the risks of radiation for unborn children or about the importance of declaring a pregnancy as early as possible in that context.

The vast majority of respondents are satisfied that the topic is brought to the forefront, they would like to be better informed about the risks and they want additional medical follow-up dedicated to ionising radiation exposure.

Action plan

The FANC has decided to set up an action plan to improve the flow of information towards aircrew members.

The goal is to raise awareness among airline companies and remind them of their duty to inform their staff members about the risks associated with radiation, about the exposure level of each of them and about the increased risk for pregnant women.

The FANC will create and distribute information packages and promote best practices from Belgium and abroad.

Occupational physicians and aviation physicians will also receive additional information. Furthermore, contacts between aviation physicians and occupational physicians accredited for the medical surveillance of persons who are occupationally exposed to ionising radiation will be stimulated.

Brussels, January 24, 2020

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