The hard line

Together: unions want a real commitment to port health and safety. Credit: Maritime Union of New Zealand Together: unions want a real commitment to port health and safety. Credit: Maritime Union of New Zealand

Relax on health and safety in ports? Not a chance, says the ITF's Paddy Crumlin

Occupational health and safety standards in ports aren’t where they need to be, in fact in many instances they aren’t even close.

I’m not talking here about what’s in the port operator policies, on their websites or what’s stated when the annual industry safety awards are handed out. I’m talking about the reality on the ground for the workers. Are they safe? Is there best practice when it comes to occupational health and safety in the workplace? A lot of the time the answer is no.

There are potential problems with health and safety in ports across the spectrum. It isn’t a developing world issue, there’s no East-West divide because men and women are dying on the job in locations across the globe. In the last six months the ITF has sent condolences to Germany, Belgium, Doha. There was a recent spike in the number of deaths on the waterfront in my home country of Australia and just last month a mother of two died when she was hit by a top loader in Port Elizabeth, US.

From where I stand, there is way too much emphasis on health and safety standards for show. Having a policy typed up and laminated in your company offices doesn’t make its application a reality. Genuinely high standards of health and safety are about constant vigilance and oversight, proper training and staff numbers, consistent application and improvement.

And the issue here isn’t just a lack of implementation either. The top down, rules-based systems are often fundamentally flawed. What really works is involving workers as equal partners in health and safety management. They’re the ones doing the job so they’re best placed to advise on minimising risk. As a trade union representing transport workers that’s what we want to see; employers listening to their workforce to see where the real issues are and what the practical response is.


Reality check

We’re never going to make ports 100% safe. Dock work is dangerous work and that’s why we fight so intensely to maintain the protected status of the profession. But what we don’t accept is companies using the fact that dock work is dangerous as an excuse for the potentially avoidable accidents, deaths and adversely affected health of workers that occur on their watch.

We’ve commissioned a report jointly with the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health from Cardiff University because we want to know what the latest is from ports around the world in relation to occupational health and safety. What comes out of that report, which is based on interviews and surveys with 1,850 workers in 11 terminals globally, might turn out to paint a slightly more positive picture than I’ve put forward in this article but whatever the findings we need to remain vigilant.

No one is saying this is a simple topic to address. There isn’t a quick fix to making ports safer. Workers have to play their part in staying safe at work and so do trade unions, as well as employers. We take our responsibility in providing education, training and support extremely seriously because health and safety is by far and away the most important issue for the ITF dockers’ section. But we need operators and employers to join us on this journey.

The bottom line is that none of us can ever relax on promoting and demanding safety in the workplace and that’s what we will continue to do as trade unions. The same commitment has to come from across the industry so we start to see a reduction in death and accident rates in ports and the health of workers’ isn’t unnecessarily being put on the line day to day. 

The results of the jointly commissioned report ‘Experiences of arrangements for health, safety and well-being in the global container terminal industry’ will be released later in 2015. Find out more about the work of the ITF at

Paddy Crumlin is the president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the chair of its dockers’ section.


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