Wharfies in battle for safe harbour

Recent deaths and injuries at or near Lyttelton Port point to a complex picture of overlapping, and a lack of training and safety policies where inexperienced workers are pressured to ntework back-to-back shifts and others are retiring early because of perceived risks, an investigation by The Press has revealed.

The issue is complicated further by an increasingly blurred line of who is responsible and potentially liable for workplace death and injury which often involve third-party companies.

Port companies around the country are now in conversation to implement a national strategy to help eliminate the serious injuries and deaths that have plagued the industry in recent years, Lyttelton Port Company has confirmed.

In August last year port worker Harley Ritchie’s leg was snapped in half when a steel beam fell on him. In November transport company owner William 'Bill' Frost died after being pinned between a logging truck trailer and a forklift.

The following month Harley Ritchie's uncle, Warren, was killed when he was struck by a crane grab while unloading urea in the hold of a Singaporean ship docked at Lyttelton. And then, in January, a Lyttelton Port Company worker was left with head and spinal injuries after a container fell on top of the forklift he was driving.

But Lyttelton is not exceptional. In the last five years 10 people have been killed while working in ports, according to WorkSafe New Zealand figures. Almost half of these were in 2013 and this year but the statistics do not include those who died working on ships while docked at a port. These incidents are investigated and prosecuted by Maritime New Zealand.

"So there is a question," said Rail and Maritime Union organiser John Kerr. "Why, when there are fewer workers on the port and more modern mechanisms in existence, are workers being hurt and killed more often?"

Sources allege an increased casualisation of inexperienced workers who often work back-to-back shifts is leading to a lax health and safety culture. 

"All the time, heaps of those young guys [have an attitude] of 'who gives a f...'," one port worker said.

Many of these casual workers did back-to-back shifts with different companies for the extra money – and also the pressure of being known as a loyal worker.

"You are definitely tired but if you want the money you have to keep going – the more you work the higher up on the list you go – earn trust, they call you back," Harley Ritchie said. "If you don't answer your phone or don't turn up, they don’t call you back.’"

It is also understood many older workers were retiring early because of perceived safety issues.

"From our perspective our aim is to make sure everyone gets home safe – we want all the people coming through here to have a good day’s work and get home safely without injury of any form," LPC chief executive Peter Davie said.

Many of the serious health and safety incidents involved third-party companies working on the port’s land. In the past there was a delineation between the LPC workers and the third-party companies, but the recent issues had changed that, Davie said. 

He was in conversation with other ports around the country about how they could work together on health and safety. In the past these meetings had been "haphazard" but now he hoped it might evolve into a more formalised policy in the future.

The Press