On the job

Bigger problems: the upsizing of ships plays havoc with shift setting. Credit: Eric Garcetti
Bigger problems: the upsizing of ships plays havoc with shift setting. Credit: Eric Garcetti
Unionised: ports on the US West Coast face more challenging labour conditions. Credit: Bari Bookout.jpg
Unionised: ports on the US West Coast face more challenging labour conditions. Credit: Bari Bookout.jpg
Working together: lots of factors feed into shift planning. Credit: Evan Spellman
Working together: lots of factors feed into shift planning. Credit: Evan Spellman

Ports need to weigh up the pros and cons of different shift lengths, finds Martin Rushmere

A matrix of the working schedules of eight-hour versus 12-hour shifts very quickly shows, assuming the common industry standard of a four-crew rotation, that in principle, workers on a 12-hour rotation enjoy 273 full days rest compared with 180 days for those on the eight-hour pattern. The eight-hour crews have the same number of rest hours but have to be on duty at least some of the time for far more days.

This is a point that workforce performance specialist Circadian continues to push home with its clients throughout the world. A second point is that 12-hour crews work far more of the same shifts (day or night) each week, making it easier for their internal body clocks and rhythms to adjust. "The eight-hour crews are cycling between morning, afternoon and night – which can throw their rhythms out of whack," says Bill Davis, vice president of operations at Circadian.

In a steady-state world of predictable demand (such as power stations) making a choice would be easy. But the unpredictability of port activity makes it much trickier. "Ships don't arrive on time and there are peaks and troughs of activity, which means changes in demand for the number of crews at any one time," says Mr Davis.

The other complication is the involvement of trade unions coupled with government regulations on work hours. Many union contracts are based on eight-hour shifts, while government rules specify overtime (usually time-and-a-half) for more than eight hours.

And different shift patterns occur within the union system. In the US, union contracts differ between the east and west coasts. The ILWU on the West Coast allocates workers for each shift while the ILA on the East Coast organises for each vessel.

Eight-hour proponent

Dean Davison, principal consultant of Ocean Shipping Consultants, favours the eight-hour system. "The three-gang by eight hours over a 24-hour period delivers the best productivity. In somewhat simple terms, it helps ensure that the workforce do not become overtired because the operation itself is not overstressing activities. But there must be supporting facilities.

The obvious “challenge” with the 12-hour/12-hour off system is that it is restrictive on the number of consecutive days that can be worked. If this means only three days per week are available, then it’s a 36-hour week. A three-shift eight-hour system is much better and allows for longer runs of working days to be generated. At the same time, with 12-hour days it is likely to mean that there are two breaks during that working period. If each break is an hour, then the actual working time is 10 hours, which is okay but human nature will dictate that towards the end of the 12-hour shift there will be an element of tiredness or inertia – it’s inevitable."

Paul Bingham, vice president of EDR Group consultants, says: "I’m not sure 12-hours on/12-off is entirely dead and buried worldwide for dockworkers but certainly it is no longer viewed as ultimately productive for management-labour relations/safety/cost efficiency reasons in the developed countries. With government scrutiny of transportation-related equipment operators specifically, it seems unlikely that this practice could return anywhere as a standard where it has already ceased to be the standard. 

Mr Davison says that software is obviously important in scheduling but there is more to consider. "It is also essential to have a manual back-up in place that could be called upon, if needed or if there are software issues.

"The other issue is, of course, training of the shift management – in terms of best deployment of worker resources and equipment. The optimal situation will be an experienced and highly-capable shift manager using a good IT system."

Adds Mr Bingham: "Software can greatly assist managers with shift pattern planning and decision-making but they don’t call it Human Resources for nothing. Managers that only rely on software will likely run into problems when individual worker issues are not well-captured and identified. There are examples from other, related industries such as over-the-road haulage where operator shifts managed by software without real oversight from trained managers lead to higher levels of dissatisfaction, less workforce stability and lower productivity."

US challenges

Mr Bingham says that other factors have to be considered in regions such as the US West Coast. "The shift planning for the US West Coast ports has to take into consideration how many hours the longshore workers will actually be working per shift, given dispatch from the union hall, the details around common or rolling break or meal times per shift, the likely experience mix of the workers expected to comprise shifts at different times of day or days of week (based on the most senior ‘A Book’) longshore workers having preference as to when they work (and don’t work). The general idea being that the most experienced workers can be the most productive generally while the inexperienced casuals may not be as productive."

Individual elements might make only a small difference, he says, but taken together they can be significant. "There are even differences terminal-to-terminal, not just from the level of automation, but from the operating practices on terminal and constraints from layout, space and operations (e.g. more or less on-dock rail; ability to segment like containers on-terminal; gate operations for the ‘outside’ dray truckers, etc.)

"Factors that vary port to port can include the standards around use of evening gate hours, such as provided by the Pier Pass program at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach or now at the Port of Oakland," says Mr Bingham. 

Mega ships add a new dimension to the process. Dan Smith of The Tioga Group consultancy cautions that scheduling has to take into account the actual number of containers being moved per ship. "On the US East Coast only a small proportion of the boxes are moved at each port – competition among ports mean many more calls (seven that can handle 14,000+ teu ships) than on the West Coast (only four)."

Mega ship issues

He and colleague Frank Harder have analysed some of the lesser known challenges of dealing with vessels of 18,000+ teu, which rolls through to shift optimisation and utilisation.

  • An 18,000 teu mega ship at 45% of its capacity needs 5.4 teu per foot of berth, double that of a post-panamax vessel and triple that of a panamax ship.
  • From a panamax ship at 45% to a mega ship with 114% (counting loading and offloading moves, a regular feature at ports such as Los Angeles/Long Beach) would be an eightfold increase in berth throughout.

Both Mr Bingham and Mr Davison say that the most effective method of handling mega ships is planning. "Ship planning is an important component here because it is more unusual to have a complete tip-out upon arrival at a terminal," says Mr Davison, "so, the vessel must be planned so that the maximum number of cranes can work, safely, without stoppages due to cranes being too close. I appreciate that on these larger ships cranes can remain at the same bay for longer periods of time but the aim must be to maximise the highest number of cranes on the same ship wherever possible."

Mr Bingham adds: "Workforce shift planning for these large vessels is best when tied to more comprehensive information on vessel stowage and terminal yard management planning. Knowing the particulars of the unloading and loading needed can better inform workforce shift planning and improve the potential for best performance from the available labor force, many of whom likely could work multiple shifts (not sequential) on the same vessel call given the volume of cargo to be moved and how many days in port those ships will likely require.  

"As these ships are being operated as part of alliances, the advanced assembly of information to be used for planning the loading of the vessels in port will remain challenging due to the many different parties involved, some of whom will still be settling on outbound booking after the ship has arrived in port," he says.

"This means the management for the shifts needed to work these vessels will have to remain dynamic, being flexible enough to reflect changes in last-minute bookings that can alter the stowage plan as long as those shipments can meet security and operational requirements."

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