Sydney airport worker gouged in eye by falcon living in Qantas hangar

Exclusive: union says cleaners should not have to work in area where falcons have nested for at least 20 years

An aircraft worker has been gouged in the eye by a falcon that lives in a Qantas Sydney airport hangar, creating what the union has called an “unsafe work environment”.

Multiple peregrine falcons – including at least one small family – live, nest and hunt in the hangar.

Falcons have been there for at least 20 years and have turned it into a “known roosting site”.

But on Tuesday last week, one of the falcons attacked a worker, causing significant damage to his eyes, neck and face. The worker “may lose sight in one eye”, the Transport Workers Union said.

The birds cannot be easily removed because they are a protected species, and Qantas has allowed them to stay because they keep mice, rats and pigeons away.

Guardian Australia has obtained an internal safety warning issued by Qantas that confirmed the attack and told staff to wear safety goggles until the end of breeding season in November.

“Maintain clearance from any falcon activity,” the warning said. “If you are swooped or observe the falcon, please report the location and activity observed.”

The Qantas airplane hangar in Sydney.
A Qantas aircraft hangar in Sydney. Falcons have turned a hangar into a ‘known roosting site’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Staff in the hangar provided images of the falcons to Guardian Australia.

Peregrine falcons are the world’s fastest animal and can swoop at speeds of up to 300km/h. According to the safety notice, the falcon “attacked the worker when they were in the vicinity of the falcon’s food source”.

The New South Wales secretary of the TWU, Richard Olsen, said the union did not want the birds removed, but rather wanted Qantas to move cleaners away from the falcon-inhabited areas.

He said staff were asked to keep cleaning aircraft in the hangar after the attack, and that not all staff were given safety equipment.

“We are not calling for the birds to be removed, rather that Qantas have aircraft cleaned before the aircraft are moved to the particular hangar where these birds of prey roost and hunt,” he said.

He said Qantas never warned union members about the falcons.

A falcon in a Qantas hangar in Sydney.
A falcon in the Qantas hangar in Sydney. Photograph: Supplied

“TWU members are not aware of any communication from Qantas about the possible unsafe work environment that the presence of these birds create,” he said.

“Members now fear for their personal safety if they are required to enter the hangars where these birds reside.”

A Qantas spokesman said the falcon attack was the first in the hangar.

“Aircraft hangars make attractive homes for large birds due to their height and plenty of space to roost,” he said.

“It’s probably not that well known that peregrine falcons have been living in our engineering hangars at Sydney airport for at least the past 20 years … They actually help keep smaller birds, rats and mice out of the hangars.

“We’re making sure employees who work in and around the hangar are reminded of the falcons’ presence.”

According to the internal safety warning, a second worker was also swooped while walking through the hangar.

“Falcons have greater activity during their breeding cycle September through to November,” the warning said.

It advised staff to “keep clear of bird carcasses as they could be a potential food source”.

The wildlife rescue group Wires said it was “often called around this time of year” to the Qantas hangar, as the fledglings made their first attempts at flying.

Wires noted as long ago as 2010 that the Qantas hangar was “a known roosting site” for the peregrine falcon.

Rob Crawford, a Wires volunteer who specialises in raptors (birds of prey), said he had been visiting the airport falcons for years.

“Every year, they generally have one or two chicks that come through,” he told Guardian Australia. “Over six or so years we’ve been going there, there would be almost 20 birds … It’s the same cycle every year.

“There have been incidents. We’ve heard of them swooping, and that is completely normal behaviour for them. We’ve heard stories from the Qantas guys that they have been swooped before, maybe one has been scratched.

“But as far as we are aware, this is the only time that anyone has been unlucky enough to have a serious injury.”

He said that with eyeglasses and hats, the chances of more injuries were now “very, very slim”.

“It’s generally not too much of a big deal. The birds don’t care about humans for nine months of the year. For the three months they have chicks and fledglings they tend to be defensive.

“The staff love these birds, they are their friends, their colleagues. They perform quite the service. A pair of peregrines will take at least one pigeon a day – those peregrines are responsible of clearing out hundreds of feral pigeons from the airport. It’s actually a service to the greater good for the whole facility”.

As of Wednesday afternoon the peregrine falcon was coming 25th in the Guardian/Birdlife Australia bird of the year poll.

Contributor

Naaman Zhou

The GuardianTramp

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