By JIMMY BURGIN, senior vice president and director of loss control for the American Equity Underwriters
There was a time when the nation's shipyards and marine cargo handling facilities were just about the most dangerous places in the country if you were an employee. The hard-bitten workers armed with cargo hooks in the film classic On the Waterfront and in the 2005 film Cinderella Man created indelible images that many people may believe are still current.
Today, the reality is far better but far from perfect. In the early 1990's, high workers' compensation rates and accident statistics stimulated insurers and policyholders to make a concerted effort to reduce on-the-job fatalities andinjuries, not to mention lost wages, time lost, penalties and fines.
Those efforts paid off. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 1992 there were 37.8 on-the-job injuries and illnesses per 100 shipbuilding workers. By 2005, the figure had dropped to 10.9 cases per 100 workers. Similar improvements were made at marine terminals.
Even with the improvements, though, the fatality and injury rates at shipyards and in marine cargo handling is still today more than double the rate for the average workplace, 4.6 injuries per 100 workers.
The global economy and security concerns after Sept. 11, 2001, however, have created new pressures on both sets of industries that could slow and even reverse further safety advances and push insurance rates back up. Fortunately, there are steps that can keep incidence rates going down and insurance rates from ballooning.
CHANGES TO THE SAFETY LANDSCAPE
Technological improvements have, over the years, helped prevent countless accidents in shipyards, including a shift to more modular construction in ships in the 1970s and the use of fabricated metal scaffolding.
Likewise, in the marine cargo handling industry, mechanized equipment such as rail-mounted high-speed container gantry cranes, rubber tire transtainers, top picks, side picks, reach stackers, straddle carriers and utility tractors has almost fully replaced the back-breaking manual labor jobs traditional to the waterfront.
With the changes in the way cargo is handled, today's longshore workers are injured in the interface with worker and machine. In fact, recent years have seen a remarkable increase in longshore workers being struck by container handling equipment.
This type of injury may continue to occur until new worker controls and technology take effect. Industry groups also recognize an alarming new trend, that far too many injuries occur from employees hurrying to finish the job. For example, accidents occur just before a meal break or just prior to the end of the work shift.
Regulations on both the national and international fronts offer great promise in effecting improvements in workplace safety.
The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), which will be fully implemented in the next few years, holds some promise.
It is designed to prevent individuals who pose a threat from gaining unescorted access to secure areas of the nation's maritime transportation system.
Even though the TWIC is being designed to improve security, the screening process to obtain a TWIC should also encourage greater worker accountability in other areas such as safety.
TWIC was established by Congress through the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) and is administered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Coast Guard. TWICs are tamper-resistant biometric credentials that will be issued to workers who require unescorted access to secure areas of ports, vessels, outer continental shelf facilities and all credentialed merchant mariners.
Eventually, more than one million workers including longshoremen, truckers, port employees and others will be required to obtain a TWIC.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations' specialized agency responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution from ships, is also reviewing international design standards. The process, which is expected to conclude in another 12 to 18 months, should result in new guidelines to reduce accidents.
There are also the issues of aging terminal infrastructures (mostly overseas), use of untrained subcontractors (again most prevalent overseas), and rising global shipping volume outstripping the capacity of some terminals in handling it. as well as heightened concerns over security after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
From the standpoint of how these issues affect safety, however, they all can be addressed successfully with what I call a top-to-bottom emphasis on safety and accident prevention.
It's not enough for top management to extol the virtues of a safer workplace, as important as that is. Shipyards need to a create a safety culture in which every level of management and every worker understands how safety benefits everyone, not just in terms of preventing accidents but in terms of productivity and profits.
CREATE A SAFETY CULTURE
There is an old axiom that says that "if you let people do risky things, too many of them will." Creating a safety culture involves procedures that not only educate but also reward safe behavior and create accountability for unsafe practices.
Safety always starts with comprehensive, competent training, and every employee needs to be thoroughly trained in his or her job. For the most part, shipyards and marine cargo handling firms do a good job here. What should be added, however, is the additional training of supervisors, who in the heat of meeting production quotas may permit workers to take shortcuts that could compromise safety.
It never hurts to remind supervisors in a formal, consistent manner their role in promoting safety, how accidents cut into profits and that management stands behind its commitment to maintaining a safe workplace.
Aside from training, however, companies need to put in place procedures that encourage safety in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
Building a safe working environment cannot be accomplished overnight. It takes patience. It is human nature to be resistant to change, especially if procedures have become lax over an extended period.
To start with, measure compliance participation, not just the incidence rate. Encourage participation even if initial results are less than perfect. Focus first on changing behaviors, then concentrate on producing the desired results.
Force supervisors to make safety a priority. One technique is to require, after every injury incident, the supervisor to explain to the company's chief financial officer, in person, what went wrong and how to prevent the incident again. Lastly, implement a financial reward program, in which supervisors and workers can benefit.
Safety and security need not work at cross purposes. Nevertheless, the two functions should operate separately and not under the same supervisor, as is the case at some facilities. Safety and security require full-time attention. Placing both under one supervisor invites divided priorities.
Improvements in safety can pay off in so many ways--fewer accidents, less time lost, and greater productivity. Savings in insurance premium payouts can also be substantial, potentially into the hundreds of thousand of dollars. Our shipyards and marine cargo handling facilities are vital components in our economic engine, so keeping them as safe and productive as possible should be a top priority.
April 1, 2009
Copyright 2009© LRP Publications