Safety at the sharp end

Watch and learn: the workforce can be a “fantastic” source of knowledge on the ground Watch and learn: the workforce can be a “fantastic” source of knowledge on the ground
Industry Database

Safety systems success depends on everyone buying into the idea of 'safety first'. Felicity Landon reports

If you want to know about the real safety risks in a port, it makes sense to ask the people at the sharp end – and that means everyone. But that’s not enough; you also have to create a culture in which everyone, whoever they are, feels able to raise safety issues in a non-critical environment and confident that their concerns will be acted on.

“It is vital that everybody gets a voice and feels confident in sharing any concerns,” says Marco Neelsen, chief executive of APM Terminals Bahrain. “The minutes of our HSE Committee meetings are publicly displayed all over the terminal, so everyone can read them – they are not hidden on a shelf and forgotten. And with every issue raised, we will minute it, put an accountable person on to it and then discuss it again at the next meeting, asking what actions have been taken, have the necessary improvements have been carried out and do our labour partners [stevedores, for example] agree that this issue can be closed out.”

APMT Bahrain’s HSE Committee meets every month and its structure is critical to its success, says Mr Neelsen. “It is 50/50 split between our labour partners and management, plus we invite representatives of contractors on the terminal and also a union representative. Safety doesn’t have boundaries.”

APMT wants to get the voice of all employees and their opinions on safety, he says. “We start the meeting with statistics for the last month – small incidents, larger incidents, near misses, medical, etc. We discuss the findings and ask everyone’s views. Could this have been prevented? Have you spoken to your people about this?

“We then go through the minutes in detail before asking for any other safety concerns or shortcomings, whether it’s an issue in the workshop, with the machines, with paint fading or whatever. For example, we had a truck driver reporting blind spots – and reworked our traffic flow to deal with these.”


Talking points

Mr Neelsen is certain that incidents have been avoided by taking this proactive approach and methodically identifying and eliminating risks.

“It has improved safety and I think the biggest point is buy-in; we have been able to build a relationship of trust, whether it is truck drivers, clerks or RTG drivers, where they feel able to raise an issue with top management, who will take it seriously. And that is quite an achievement.”

The workforce, he says, is ‘a fantastic source of knowledge on the ground’.

“I would recommend to everybody – use employees and take them as a source. Build up trust and they will speak up. It has really helped to make the terminal a safer place and created better overall engagement with the workforce.”

He agrees that ports are constantly under pressure to finish working a ship, turn round trucks and complete other operations as quickly as possible. “We talk a lot about efficient operations. I think a very safe operation is an efficient one.”

Among new safety initiatives introduced by APM Terminals Bahrain this year is the installation of DGPS on its RTGs, a fairly new concept for the region and designed to ensure that no one has to go out looking for mislaid containers.


Anti-collision tests

The terminal is also the global test site for a new RTG collision prevention system developed by APMT and Siemens. “This system is designed to ensure the RTG operator does not accidentally knock down a container, which could be fatal,” says Mr Neelsen. “It really is something brand new. Live tests have been successful and positive and we expect this to be rolled out globally.”

He adds: “We are using data to drive our safety improvements and we also have rigorous and uncompromising standards for everyone who is entering the terminal.”

Port safety is also a huge issue in New Zealand right now, where there have been several high-profile accidents in the past couple of years – including deaths at the Port of Tauranga, Centreport (Wellington) and the Port of Lyttleton, as well as serious injuries elsewhere.

The high number of deaths and injuries is unacceptable and also a reflection of problems in the country’s ports industry, says Joe Fleetwood, national secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand.

“These problems include contracting out, where port companies in some cases step back from having a duty of care to workers in their port and avoid responsibility for what happens,” he claims. “We believe this is a driver in some ports for health and safety problems.”


Free labour

Mr Fleetwood says casualisation in the industry has led to deskilling and a lack of training and experience, and pressure on staffing levels is driven by profit.

“Fatigue and stress come from the pressure for fast turnaround, long shifts, consecutive shifts and irregular work hours,” he says. “These contribute to fatigue and stress-related issues, which increase the risk of health and safety incidents. There is a reluctance by many port operators to appreciate the hazards and health impact of long-term shift work.”

Mr Fleetwood says that among a wide range of areas for improvement, firstly the workforce needs to be empowered to make decisions to stop work on health and safety grounds, to speak out and to identify areas of concern.

“Unless workers are unionised and have their own structures to raise these issues, then the process will be flawed from the start. Due to the casualisation issue and the emergence of some non-union employers, some workers are compelled to keep working in unsafe conditions in order to protect their employment,” he claims.

“Manning levels and fatigue management are two huge issues; the removal of the hatchman position and the irregular and over-long shifts are a problem. Manning levels and shift rosters need to be brought under national industry regulation to reduce the effects of fatigue.”

He has called for mandatory public notification of incidents in all industries and a formalised policy to protect whistle-blowing. “But unfortunately, what works in professional and white collar environments of proper processes and secure employment does not apply to many other industries. If you have a casualised industry with a large number of young, sometimes inexperienced workers who may not know their rights, then that is a recipe for keeping things quiet by employers who control the day-to-day livelihood of their workers through shift allocation. Secure permanent employment is another key, because it reduces the ability of the employer to victimise staff who speak up.”


Stop the job

Richard Steele, director of the UK organisation Port Skills & Safety, says that in the UK, the workforce on the dock recognise the pressures on time and turnaround and are keen to do the job as quickly as they can. “But I believe the safest ports are those where the supervisors and managers say – ‘if you don’t think it is safe, stop the job’ – and then support the people when they do that.”

He reports on a recent incident where the stevedores were going to be using a ship’s crane to unload cargo. “The crane driver who was going to operate it was concerned about the equipment. So they stopped the job with full management support and brought in another crane. That meant extra costs and delays. However, a few months later, that ship’s crane had a failure in an American port.”

That example was an extreme case from a good open communication system that happened to have a pretty heavy duty outcome, he says. He believes real ‘whistle-blowing’ should be a last resort. “If the employer’s scheme is working well, a whistle-blowing scheme should be redundant. The aim is to get open and active, day-to-day communication and reporting going on, with employees feeling that they can raise concerns there and then, and that they will be listened to.”

Port Skills & Safety, whose member ports handle about 95% of cargo and passengers moving through UK ports, monitors accidents and incidents in ports. Reportable incidents per 100 full-time employees fell from an average 3.9 incidents in 2000 to 1.8 in 2013.

“Safety in our ports is very much better than it was 10 years ago. It is absolutely a good news story. Ports have been making huge improvements in safety,” he says. “However, we very much see this reduction as a waypoint – it needs to keep doing down.”


Continuous improvement

How can safety continue to improve? “I think it is about safety management systems and the way ports operate. The more you can keep people and big pieces of cargo or vehicles apart, the more you reduce the risks to individuals,” says Mr Steele.

“But infrastructure is not going to be rebuilt and redeveloped minute-to-minute – the change has been more to do with how ports have been managing safety. Over the last ten years, port organisations have got their documentation into place and got their SMS working, putting safety reps, safety panels and safety groups and meetings in place. They provide good quality PPE. There is more systematic risk assessment and they tend to work with workforce to check processes and risks, rather than just having the paperwork sitting on the shelf.

“A number of ports are now trying to really work on safety culture and behaviour. And that is the next challenge – when the systems and procedures are in place, it is about working with people to take it to the next level. That is a mix of psychology and behaviour and support, of open management, communication, leadership and worker engagement – the softer stuff.”


Taking steps towards a 'safety passport'

The UK’s Port Skills & Safety has partnered with First4skills (City of Liverpool College) to survey members on the possibility of a UK port safety induction/safety passport which would set a minimum level of knowledge that someone would need in order to go on to a port area.

“We have tried to do this in the past in the ports industry but one of the factors that has tended to confound us is that ports can be quite different,” says Richard Steele. “The difficulty is – what do you include in the standard content that is going to be universal? So until now, ports have tended to do their own thing – but, with communication technology as it is, surely now is the time for us to see whether we can introduce something at the national level.”

“The project is at the stage of identifying, if ports want it, what we need to do. How would we need to build a safety passport scheme to make it a no-brainer to use? What sort of content would they expect to see in there? How would the system be delivered? I am hoping that the industry will have an appetite for it. I certainly think our members are open to the idea. It is how you get down to the detail of implementing it.

“For example, take fire safety. You can talk about the fire triangle, you need heat, fuel and oxygen for fire to take place, and you can talk about protection and prevention and what to do in principle, but at individual ports, the alarm might sound different, you might have different types of material that are more flammable and therefore a specialist response would be required. And you can’t say in a national system ‘go down the fire escape, turn left and congregate in the car park’. The challenge is how to make something that works – specific enough to be useful but not so specific that it doesn’t apply.”

Among the typical and most common hazards, he lists keeping people segregated from plant and cargo; working at heights; slips, trips and falls; working over water; and manual handling.


New Zealand's health and safety faces sweeping reform

Major reforms are under way in New Zealand, including a new Health and Safety Reform Bill currently passing through parliament. This new legislation, which will apply to all industry sectors, was one of the recommendations of an independent taskforce set up following the Pike River mining disaster in 2010. It is likely that the Bill will come into force in the second half of 2015, according to Worksafe New Zealand.

Worksafe is the main health and safety agency for port safety (covering from the port to the bottom of the gangway), while the other regulatory agency is Maritime New Zealand (from the bottom of the gangway up and at sea).

“The new laws were introduced because New Zealand’s previous laws were found to be ‘not fit for purpose’ and lagging a generation behind comparable jurisdictions such as Australia,” says Joe Fleetwood, national secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand.

“Major changes are occurring – however, the concern of the Maritime Union is that a wider cultural shift needs to take place for worker safety to be placed first in the priority list with many employers. This is where the agencies such as Worksafe have to step up and ensure that incidents are not just filed away in a cabinet.”



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