When a 65kg weight from a digger shackle landed on her left foot, port worker Annie was lucky not to lose her toes, but the accident ended her stevedoring career.
The financial hit meant she nearly lost her home, tendon damage forced her to sell the prized Ducati road bike she could no longer ride, and three years on she still uses painkilling patches on the injury that limits her to wearing sneakers.
The solo parent, who used a pseudonym because of a non-disclosure agreement arising from mediation with her former employer, experienced two other terrifying near misses and says recent action on safety is long overdue.
“Mum would say, ‘why are you doing this, you’re going to kill yourself?’ but I loved the job … I kept going back because I wanted to be a crane driver, I stuck at it, then I had my accident and everything turned to s….”
In April Don Grant perished loading coal at Lyttelton Port on ANZAC Day less than a week after 26-year-old Atiroa Tuaiti died falling off a container at Ports of Auckland, and the two deaths in rapid succession prompted WorkSafe Minister Michael Wood to order a Transport Accident Investigation Commission enquiry into the fatalities.
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Emergency services were called to the port on the morning of April 25.
Maritime NZ is conducting its own investigation into the deaths, at least one of which is understood to have been captured on port CCTV cameras.
The agency responsible for the safety, security and environmental protection of New Zealand’s coastal and inland waterways received a $4.3 million funding boost in the Budget to increase its safety work.
In recent months, together with WorkSafe, it has done 50 assessments of 24 businesses operating at 13 New Zealand ports – observing on wharves, talking to unions, managers and frontline staff, and gathering feedback at meetings where workers could speak freely without management present.
Data on accidents, incidents and near misses over the last few years will be analysed to try to identify the causes of fatalities and serious injuries.
A port health and safety leadership group made up of the two regulators, unions, and representatives from port and stevedoring companies, will report back to Wood by October on key ways to improve safety, including the potential introduction of national port operating standards.
Why ports are so dangerous
Each year ACC receives about 300 new work-related claims for injuries at commercial ports, and over the past five years, injuries requiring more than a week away from work had an estimated lifetime cost of $21.6m.
Since 2018 six workers have died on the job at port facilities, and in 2017 an Auckland pilot boat accidentally hit and killed an ocean swimmer.
Otago University’s injury prevention research unit came up with some sobering results using Ministry of Health data and coroners’ files covering a 20-year period from 1995 to 2014.
Their study identified 59 worker deaths that occurred in ports and harbours, or during port-related activities.
Senior research fellow Rebbecca Lilley says defining port fatalities has historically been “a bit of a minefield” because of grey areas around what is classed as a port-related death.
However, almost half the fatalities they found occurred on ships or wharfs, and a quarter (15) were fishermen.
Eighteen victims were hit by a moving object, such as a forklift or cargo, 16 drowned and 14 died from slips, trips and falls.
Six victims were off duty, some of them crew members who fell into the water after a night out, and in 20 cases impairment from drugs, alcohol, fatigue and health conditions contributed to deaths.
“There’s also been a failure of communications in a lot of these incidents, and the condition of equipment is quite important, whether or not they’re wearing PPE.”
Weather and fumes in ship holds were among the environmental factors implicated in 13 deaths, and Lilley says that with climate change bringing more extreme weather, this could lead to more port fatalities.
There are plans to update the research, but the pace of coroners’ hearings means it will take some time.
Families and workmates devastated
In recent years Auckland and Lyttelton ports have both conducted major reviews over safety failures that led to them being prosecuted multiple times and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Given the continuing toll, safety is a hot issue for the three unions that between them represent thousands of port workers from stevedores to crane, straddle and forklift drivers.
Maritime Union of New Zealand assistant secretary Craig Harrison says workplace deaths rob families of loved ones and decades of earnings, with insufficient reparation ordered when cases go to court.
Witnesses to accidents are deeply affected too, and he describes the trauma suffered by a young man who was nearby when Auckland workmate Pala’amo Kalati was crushed by a container in 2020.
“He’s never been back to the waterfront. He’s traumatised; even when he sees containers on trucks he gets nervous.”
So will things really change and how quickly?
In the construction industry it is accepted practice on large projects for the main contractor to insist all subcontractors abide by a common set of safety rules, but in ports a similar undertaking would cover a huge number of individual employers.
Lyttelton Port, for example, has 60 lead businesses operating on-site, and if every trucking company, contractor and service provider was included, the number would be in the hundreds.
As a rule of thumb, work incidents on ships are investigated by Maritime NZ, with WorkSafe handling those on land, but Harrison says there is growing support for Maritime to do the lot because it has the requisite knowledge.
He is impressed by the new crop of chief executives – Maritime NZ’s Kirstie Hewlett, Ports of Auckland’s Roger Gray, and Kirstie Gardener at Lyttelton – and appreciates their willingness to engage with the workforce and unions.
But he does not underestimate the task ahead, and believes competition between ports has helped put safety standards back to where they were in the early 1990s because of the focus on productivity.
A drop in training exercises, such as evacuations from ships’ holds, is a case in point.
Earlier this year stevedoring company ISO was taken to task by Maritime over its lack of evacuation procedures when six workers were overcome by fumes from the hold of a log ship in Napier in 2018 after a digger operator lost consciousness, and others who tried to rescue him also succumbed.
Charges were dismissed, and Harrison is disappointed Maritime NZ, on advice from the Crown Law Office, decided not to appeal the court decision.
He refers to an accident at Tauranga in April (currently under investigation by authorities), where it took Fire and Emergency several hours to extract an ISO stevedore who suffered broken legs after falling from giant rolls of paper in a ship’s hold.
ISO, New Zealand’s largest stevedore employer is owned by Australia logistics company Qube, and in a written statement says it is working on a number of initiatives with Maritime NZ, “so unfortunately we can’t comment.”
Other major stevedoring companies C3, Wallace Investments, Independent Stevedoring Ltd, and SSA New Zealand are keeping their heads down too, and either refused to comment or did not respond to questions about safety and work practices.
The Port Industry Association, previously the NZ Stevedoring Employers Association, also declined to comment.
Dodging danger and fighting fatigue
Interviews with Rail and Maritime Transport Union members about in preparation for a recent health and safety workshop with Maritime NZ produced a list of 20 separate issues ranging from poor communications and traffic management, to breaches of exclusion zones under suspended loads.
Union health and safety organiser Karen Fletcher says differing training standards for straddle and crane drivers are a problem too.
“Members feel people are signed off as competent before they really are because of pressure to get them out working.”
Fatigue is being exacerbated by labour shortages.
In the course of a day, stevedores can move 100 to 300 lashing bars each weighing up to 23 kg, and a job that needs two people ends up being done by one, increasing the risk of injury and fatigue, Fletcher says.
Some stevedores are required to work eight hours on eight hours off, and compulsory minimum rest periods are essential because some employers expect workers back on the job after as little as five hours sleep.
“It’s an accident waiting to happen … it’s not illegal to run these sorts of rosters, but it should be.”
Ports of Auckland has already decided to cut its shifts from 12 hours to eight hours, but the move will only apply to port company employees, not to stevedores working for Wallace Investments or C3.
Gray says the move is proving tricky not least because of the potential impact on worker pay packets, and he estimates it will take 12 to 18 months to implement.
Fatigue management guidelines from the port leadership group are also due out soon, and unions say change is needed to attract and retain workers in an increasingly tight labour market.
Stevedoring company C3 is advertising on a website for over 50s jobseekers offering a starting rate of $22.50 an hour for 12-hour shifts loading logs, unloading general cargo and driving cars off vessels.
Harrison says that does not wash these days. “People can go and earn more money at Bunnings stacking paint, and the stevedoring industry has been slow to react.”
A New Zealand straddle driver earning $80,000 in Auckland can get A$140,000 by shifting to Sydney, and “they’re all starting to pack their bags and go.”
Harrison challenges cargo owners, such as kiwifruit, log and dairy exporters, to take some responsibility for demanding freight be moved as quickly as possible at the lowest possible price, because that pressure can lead to corners being cut.
Chairman of the Cargo Owners Council Simon Beale says they have no control over charges set by ports and shipping companies, and they have raised the need to bring in more skilled migrant workers with the Minister of Transport.
Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson says while it is true that there is a financial incentive to load log vessels efficiently, this is not done at the expense of safety.
Increasingly grapple machines and shore cranes are replacing the need for wharf hands to sling wire ropes around logs lifted by ships’ cranes, thus eliminating the need for people to work near suspended loads.
Oops we dropped one
More than 70 incidents involving commercial operators in ports and harbours were reported to Maritime NZ last year, and Harrison suggests they represented “less than half of what really goes on.”
The list contains some hair-raising mishaps.
A 25 tonne load that fell up to five metres after a crane malfunctioned was one of more than a dozen cases of cargo and equipment dropped into the sea, ships’ holds, or onto the wharf.
Three out of four cranes on one vessel were “condemned,” and damaged bolts on another resulted in a section of decking collapsing into the hold, missing stevedores working there.
None of that surprises Annie. “You looked at these cranes shaking and shuddering because they were under so much pressure, you put your hand up and say, ‘this is wrong’, and they say, ‘it’s fine just keep going because the job has to be done.’
“You can go on boats where the rust is crumbling under your feet, and they paint over it, so they can keep getting away with it.”
Hewlett says of 250 ships Maritime NZ inspected last year, 60% were found to have deficiencies, mostly engine failures and problems with pilot ladders and lifting gear, but only two vessels were actually detained until repairs were completed.
Maritime inspections fell during Covid-19 because health measures made it difficult to board vessels, but the agency is setting up a 10-person inspection team dedicated to checking foreign and domestically flagged vessels, a move applauded by both unions and port operators.
The aim is to prevent accidents like the one in 2017 where a handrail collapse on board the log carrier Pakhoi in 2017 resulted in an ISO worker falling 8m from a pile of logs, sustaining serious injuries that required 56 days in hospital and multiple surgeries.
ISO agreed to a $425,000 enforceable undertaking to avoid prosecution, and committed to developing a national online portal for stevedores to report problems on vessels.
The portal is up and running, but Harrison describes it as a “sham” which is poorly understood and little used by the industry.
Both Gray and Gardener were unaware of it, but say their teams routinely do safety inspections of ships before starting work anyway, and Gray is adamant about refusing to work ships deemed substandard.
“We will not be pressured into unloading ships by a cargo owner and compromise safety, just straight up it’s not going to happen.”
Hope for the future
In June Ports of Auckland instituted 15 safety rules all port users must abide by, including an undertaking to immediately report all hazards and incidents.
Together with unions and stevedoring companies, port management is also working on a code of practice, similar to one already used in Australia, covering all aspects of port operations, and Gray says it could be adopted nationally.
Fletcher says while there’s a hell a long way to go, for the first time in a decade she is beginning to feel more confident real progress is being made on the safety front.
The grieving family of Lyttelton worker Don Grant, who died buried in a heap of coal, hope that confidence is well-placed.
In a written statement prepared for Stuff they say their “rock” Don was “gone in a flash, with no last banter, no goodbyes, and no last hugs or kisses.”
The drawn out enquiry into his death is emotionally gruelling, and their wish is that it provides answers to help protect other port workers in future.
“All workers need to know that they are safe and will be coming home from work to their loved ones.
“You go to work to live, you don’t go to work to die.”