On a typical day in July 2015, “Kim,” a Korean Air flight attendant, pompously stands in front of the mirror and checks her reflection.
“Tight low bun? Check. Black heels? Check. But my lips need more color,” she says to herself and paints her rouged lips with an additional two coats of her bright pink Chanel lipstick.
Thrilled, she can’t stop smiling; this is the best day of her life. The thought of teaching newly-hired stewardesses is something that she has always dreamt of.
After boarding all passengers into the Los Angeles bound plane, “Kim” then steps in and locks the entry door.
“Hello. Welcome onboard Korean Air A300 flight to LAX, Los Angeles International Airport. Flying time to LAX is 14 hours 45 minutes. Meals and refreshments will be served during the flight,” she announces.
But suddenly, she notices her body trembling with a high fever. Simultaneously, she feels nauseous and promptly begins to vomit, though not having eaten anything. After landing in Los Angeles, she heads straight for the hospital. The doctor, with hesitation, tells her that she is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
“Kim” subsequently has to quit her job and be placed in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Currently, she only weighs 39 kilograms despite her height being 173 cm tall. Bones could be seen through her skin. Her lips have become completely shriveled, and huge amounts of hair had been lost. What had caused her to turn out like this?
Industrial accident applications for conditions with injuries to the musculoskeletal system are indeed atypical. Nevertheless, “Kim” doubtlessly claims her malady to be directly caused by severe exposure to cosmic radiation while traveling across auroras in the polar routes for six consecutive years. There was no history of leukemia in her family, and her previous health checkups had been shown that she was normal. Korean Air, however, made a slow turn against the incident. The airline has consecutively stood still while other flight attendants have suffered injuries and illnesses that fell beyond the scope of the worker’s compensation.
While it is primarily known for airline crew members to face constant inattentive passengers, it is not the only thing that they have to deal with. An unseen menace may come to be more provoking than these rude, obnoxious customers: cosmic radiation. Although it can’t be seen or be felt, a myriad of radioactive particles is soaring through the Earth’s atmosphere in all directions. Passengers, unfortunately, can be exposed to a significant amount of radiation when flying 10~12km above the North Pole. They can penetrate the human flesh and gradually pose mortal risks to our health. The harm to the tissues and DNA correlate with cancer and reproductive problems. According to the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission, Korean Air has flown over the North Pole more than any other airline, therefore leading to a higher percentage of radiation vulnerability.
“I am not the only victim. There are a lot of people that are suffering from breast cancer, laryngeal cancer, etc.” said “Kim”.
In fact, as aircrews spend prolonged periods of time up in the sky, they have the highest yearly dose of radiation out of all radiation-exposed workers. The annual amount of radiation they receive is approximately three millisieverts (mSv), which ranks itself to the second most radiation-receiving job after astronauts.
A solution for the excessive exposure of cosmic radiation is to minimize the amount of vulnerability by restraining the crew workers on working on flights that require long, high-altitude flights that fly over the North Pole. The International Commission of Radiation Protection recommends these workers must not be exposed to more than 20 mSv annually. However, for demanding airlines (ie. Korean Air), it is fairly easy for their airline workers to surpass the suggested limit. Night shifts are a daily for these people, since big companies in South Korea often put a high premium on dedicated determination. As this has been rooted in the bone of many South Koreans during the country’s 60-year rise to a leading industrial power, it cannot be easily altered.
“No matter how hard you work and how much they praise you, when you’re no longer useful they throw you away”, “Kim” sobbed. The thought of ‘hard work leads to success’ is not compatible for Korean Air. She, after using up over 90 continuous days of her sick days and just starting to take a one-year leave, has been forced to resign. Just days after using her sick days, company staffs have been repetitively calling her at home. She was told that she needed a doctor’s note saying that it was safe for her to be working as a flight attendant. The airline was indirectly informing her to quit her job. Thus, due to her deteriorating health, she eventually had to resign in February 2017.
In South Korea, dreaming of becoming a stewardess is any girl’s dream. But it is rarely known that they can be classified as radiation workers. The world of the elegant and beautiful flight attendant, is in fact, the opposite of what is known. In this regard, Korean Air said in a statement that they are rearranging the flight schedules and routes to be one of that does not have much risk on cosmic radiation. But a question comes to mind: will Korean Air keep their promise?