With employees spread across different bases in various corners of the
world, the occupational health team at British Airways has a real challenge on
its hands. By Kate Rouy
British Airways may no longer promote itself as the world’s favourite
airline but it can still justifiably describe itself as the world’s largest.
Last year it flew 41 million people on 538,000 flights, covering 233
destinations in 96 countries. The health of its employees is vital for its
smooth running and profitability, and that is in the hands of the 122-strong
British Airways Health Service (BAHS) team, based at the company’s Waterside
centre at Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport.
Director of health services Dr Sandra Mooney describes BAHS as "a core
occupational health service, but with additional features within its hub".
These additional features include three travel clinics open to the general
public at Regent Street, Cheapside and Victoria in London, and a non-profit
making general dental practice for BA staff.
Indeed, OH provision at British Airways is as old as the company itself, in
place for the company’s forerunners BOAC and British Imperial Airlines.
The BAHS is proud of this history and its involvement in the evolution of
the airline, as well as its pioneering work in aviation medicine. For example,
working with the health aspects of supersonic travel prior to the first flight
Any traditional aspects of the service, however, lie very firmly in the
"We have moved a long way from that," says Mooney, although the
criteria remain the same. "The occupational health service is essentially
there to provide the appropriate service for everyone who works at British
Airways," she adds.
That numbers 65,000 employees, approximately 50,000 of whom work in the UK.
The service has undergone major restructuring over the past three years,
along with the rest of the company, described by Mooney as "a huge sea
change for us, but one that really made sure we focused on the business and the
needs of the business".
During this time, the occupational health adviser role was born, designed to
take OH nurses out of a purely clinical role and into something more proactive.
"We do have a very modest treatment service, but we do not encourage
it," says Mooney. "It is a valued service but it is not where we put
There are currently 15 OHAs on the team, responsible for providing OH
services to designated areas of the company.
"One of the main parts of the OHA role is to work in tandem with other
health professionals," says Judy Cook, head of nursing services. The team
of OH service nurses have taken on a more day-to-day clinical role, taking care
of screenings, treatment and immunisation, as well as supporting first aiders
and working with ambulance crews.
Meanwhile, OHAs are more concerned with sickness absence, health and safety,
health promotion and advising the different business groups within the airline,
"The occupational health advisers work in a very autonomous fashion,
managed by me," she adds. "They liaise very closely with the doctors
and we are continuing to encourage joint working practices, something we are
doing to increase levels of partnership within BAHS.
All of the directorate within BAHS work to key performance indicators in
line with the rest of the business, such as good business understanding in
"I think that is an important point," says Mooney. "We are
known to the management team and also among the staff. And I think as an
occupational health team you only have legitimacy if you take the time to
understand the work other people within the business are doing, their
pressures, their aspirations. This is fundamental, to take the time to talk to
people. And that goes for everyone.
"I think the fact the occupational health advisers are detached also
gives them the opportunity to understand the people in the departments they are
working with and vice versa. It is a great strength."
Cook and Mooney agree that the perception of occupational health has changed
within British Airways. "People do see the value of a professional
service, and that is a mind change," says Cook.
Part of that perception comes from the fact BAHS is constantly reviewing its
service, asking the rest of the company for its opinions about what is being
Profile also is not a problem for the team, says Mooney, who reports
directly to chief executive Rod Eddington. "I have access to anyone I want
to have access to," she says. "That helps and facilitates
understanding. There are no barriers."
Cook adds, "The business accepts occupational health and the concept of
occupational health. We are not struggling to justify ourselves about whether
OH should exist or not: it is accepted. But that does not make us
Mooney says, "That would be the most dangerous and irresponsible thing
we could do."
So while the BAHS team resides on the ground floor of the £200m
purpose-built Waterside Centre (with a small mirror image at Gatwick Airport),
the employees it is looking after are scattered across the globe. "We have
a truly absent workforce," says Mooney, which includes 3,500 pilots and
4,500 cabin crew.
Within the remit of BAHS are occupational physicians, including two
specialist registrars within the field of aviation medicine. As well as working
in partnership with the OHAs, their role includes specific areas, such as
monitoring radiation levels of employees involved in x-raying aircraft, the
passenger medical side, overseas medical service and working with other departments
in the development of brands, such as new initiatives in onboard seating.
Dr David Flower is a member of the team of occupational physicians. A former
GP and a graduate engineer, his role, as well as clinical work, is with
operations, sales and marketing.
"I was working in the nuclear industry and began doing work on jet lag
and its effects. British Airways invited me to join them and I have carried
that work on, looking at aspects of jet lag and its effects with the crews, and
also on the marketing side with getting that information out to
passengers," he said.
"I have been here for six years, and it is a great department to work
in. The airline industry is very stimulating, a very exciting industry to work
in. It is constantly changing and there is always something new."
In addition a four-strong team of hygiene advisers travels the world
inspecting catering establishments and water quality, as well as crew hotels
for levels of noise and hygiene.
"They have the power to refuse catering if it does not meet their
rigorous standards," says Mooney. "That then means that that route
may no longer be suitable to fly. And that is a very tangible part of the
business and a huge decision with far-reaching consequences."
Screening takes up a lot of the time of the department’s day-to-day work,
with testing in place for pilots (every six months) as well as drivers and
those employees working with radiation.
In an attempt to cut down on the workload, Mooney took the decision to
computerise BAHS. "The intent is to be paperless," she says.
"Every health record is computerised and we work very much on e-mail. It
was a huge leap, but actually it is very useable."
Immunisation is also a major part of the department’s work because of the
volume of people travelling abroad on duty. In addition, employees are also
provided with malarial advice, and information about general wellbeing while
The department also operates a passenger medical clearance service for
travellers with significant medical problems who want to fly but may be
affected by the flight itself or its length. It also operates the BAHS
Helpline, "like NHS Direct, but an e-mail enquiry line", says Cook.
"This is something that we want to develop."
It is also set to take its first steps into the Internet with the provision
of a health page for travellers.
"It seems that generally people are becoming much more health
aware," says Mooney. "And if there is an authoritative source that
people can get hold of, then that feels right in today’s climate."
"The people here have realised the potential of working in partnership
with each other, that this is the right way to go forward," says Cook.
"We value everyone in the team and our staff turnover is very low. I think
people see great potential in occupational health at British Airways for the
future. There is so much that we can be involved in."
OH adviser Heather Tinker, who has worked for British Airways for 24 years,
agrees. "There is a real buzz here, there is always something going on. We
work with so many different groups of people that we are always on a learning
"You have to go with the flow to a certain extent if you want to enjoy
your job. But we are all very flexible."
Mooney says, "OH at British Airways doesn’t stay still. There is a real
buzz to it. The thing that I am most proud of is the commitment and
professionalism of my team. The level of expertise here is second to
British Airways Health Services
Dr Sandra Mooney director health services
Winnie Lobo personal assistant to director health services
David Irvine epidemiologist
Mike Kelly chief hygiene adviser, heads team of hygiene advisers
Judy Cook head of nursing services, heads team which includes, manager clinical
nursing services and clinical nurses, manager nurse training and development,
occupational health advisers
Dr Michael Bagshaw head of medical services, team includes, specialist
occupational physicians, occupational physicians, travel clinics, aircraft
medical equipment and services, passenger medical clearance unit, ambulance
Jane Exelby head of dental services, heads team of dental surgeons and dental
Kay Talbot business support manager, responsible for secretarial and
To provide the highest quality health service in support of BA’s corporate
To provide the best advice and assistance to the company, its staff and
– On fitness for work and the prevention of work related ill health and
sickness absence in ground, air and overseas environments
– On compliance with accepted standards and legal requirements in relation
to occupational health and safety
– On health related matters associated with airline operations