Federal airport security screeners have one of the highest injury rates in the nation — mostly because of strains, sprains and spasms from struggling with luggage at poorly designed checkpoints, according to a USA Today review of federal labor and homeland security records.

Injured workers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), more than two-thirds of whom are screeners, missed nearly a quarter-million days of work last year. The lost job time has contributed to a staffing shortage that has strained checkpoint security and lengthened lines at airports.

TSA employees injured on the job missed work in 2004 at five times the rate of the rest of the federal workforce. They were injured four times as often as construction-industry workers and seven times as often as miners.

John Moran, chief of staff at the TSA division in charge of worker safety, says: "We have a culture right now that seems to be very focused on moving people, and [screeners] are not necessarily asking for the help they might need" when lifting heavy bags.

The TSA also may have hired screeners unable to handle the heavier bags, Moran says.

And in a rush to meet a post-9/11 deadline to screen all luggage, bulky explosives-detection machines were placed wherever they would fit in airports — often in spots that contribute to injuries. Screeners are often forced to lift bags from awkward positions and haul them significant distances, Moran says.

TSA’s injury rate — the number of injuries per 100 employees — in the second half of 2004 was about 26 percent. That compares with 5 percent in the private sector in 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available.

TSA's annual injury rate soared from 19 percent in fiscal year 2003 to 29 percent in 2004, according to the government's count of workers' compensation claims that have been approved. Those figures include all injuries, whether or not an employee missed work.

The rate of injuries that forced TSA employees to miss work jumped from 9 percent to 12 percent. In the private sector, the rate was 1.5 percent.