Back strains are common. Other injuries include cuts when a screener reaches into a bag to check for sharp objects, or bumps, bruises and even broken bones after suitcases fall on feet and hands, according to a recently released federal report.
Laura Roler, a former screener supervisor, suffered a debilitating back injury last year from lifting heavy bags at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. There, the baggage-screening machines are in front of the terminal, giving screeners less space to work.
"Proper lifting techniques, proper ergonomics, are pretty much impossible because of the small space," said Roler, 29.
Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Hatfield said the agency knows there is a problem and is taking steps to address it.
"We're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the physical systems, the mechanical systems," Hatfield said, explaining the problem is due partly to lack of time to prepare work areas.
The TSA had only a year to recruit and train tens of thousands of people to screen passengers and baggage at 429 commercial airports. Airports couldn't be renovated fast enough to properly install new security equipment, so the large machines that screen luggage for explosives were hastily placed in many airport lobbies, requiring screeners to lift heavy bags from the floor onto conveyor belts.
"It's a very physical and tough job, and in many situations we are still operating under less-than-ideal conditions," Hatfield said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a recently released report that the injury and illness rate for TSA workers was 19.4 percent during the year ending Sept. 30. The average for federal workers was 5.5 percent.
"That's extraordinarily high," said Dr. Laura Welch, medical director for the Center to Protect Workers' Rights, a Silver Spring, Md., organization that tries to improve safety for construction workers. "It suggests there's a really big problem and they'd better figure out what it is."
The rate represents how many times the government reimburses employees for on-the-job injuries or illnesses, divided by the total work force, according to OSHA spokesman Al Belsky. The TSA employed about 65,000 people last year, with the vast majority working as screeners.
Next to the TSA, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center had the highest rate of injury, at 12.4 percent, followed by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (11.5 percent), the National Park Service (10.5 percent) and the Marshal Service (9.3 percent).
There are no comparable statistics on injury rates for people who handle baggage for airlines. But a 2001 survey of 2,500 passenger service agents - most of whom handle bags - done by the Communication Workers of America found 31 percent said they'd been medically diagnosed with a disorder of the neck, shoulder or upper back.
Bill Lyons, an organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, said lugging heavy baggage is the main reason so many TSA screeners are getting hurt on the job.
"When you're not trained properly in how to lift bags, you're going to hurt something," said Lyons, whose union represents TSA employees.
TSA screeners often complain they get the runaround when they file for worker's compensation, Lyons said. The union printed and distributed 20,000 brochures for TSA screeners on how to file claims, he said.
Hatfield said the TSA plans to train screeners on safe lifting techniques and to develop more specific standard operating procedures to avoid injury.
By Leslie Miller