Why are port workers still dying?

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 28/06/2014
CHARLES ANDERSON/The Press

Helen Dungey remembers her son Warren who died six months ago while working at Lyttelton Port

Relevant offers

Hills and Harbour

Stranded teen rescued from cliffs Birthday girl rescued from Brighton rip New square a milestone for Lyttelton Bach owners: 'Risks to life' no big deal Remote control handles demolition Too many port deaths as profits rise Call to limit building in flood-prone areas Smelly rest home a 'health hazard' City council grants church $43,000 Cashmere residents rally against rest home

Months after Lyttelton Port Company dedicated itself to "zero harm" in the workplace, the first of a series of injuries and deaths occurred. Why, when there are less people working on New Zealand ports and more modern technologies in place, are workers still being hurt and killed? Charles Anderson reports.

The photograph sits on a bedroom dresser in a small wooden cottage. On the walls of the South Brighton home there are oil paintings and old lithographs from the hills looking out over Lyttelton harbour. On the mantelpieces are model ships.

In that photograph, he is looking up. A small beam of light hits his face. Warren Ritchie is smiling.

Every morning Helen Dungey wakes and looks at the picture of her son and then to the polished wooden box that sits just below it. The photo is how she imagines him in his final moments - looking upward, towards his fate.

Ritchie was moving on from a previous life. His partner had left him and he had left her most of his possessions. He moved to Lyttelton - back to the place he grew up and back to the port that his family home had looked out over.

Back then, as a youngster, the port had fewer ships coming back and forth. It was busier now.

On the morning of December 21 he had just texted the father of his nephew, who he was living with. He was about to go on his break and he wanted some cigarettes.

For the past month Ritchie had been a wharfie, a stevedore, working for Lyttelton Stevedoring Services, unloading the myriad ships that came into port each day. He was helping to unload urea, a fertiliser.

While he had been a sailor for much of his life, he had never worked on a port before.

Ritchie's job was a trimmer. He stood in the holds of ships and brushed down the excess urea from their steel walls and into a pile. Then a crane would dunk its bucket in and pull out tonnes of the load to place onto the port.

On that day the ship was the Citrus Venus, a Singaporean vessel that regularly docked at Lyttelton.

In the dry language of an interim coroner's report seen by The Press, Ritchie died from: "Crush asphyxia with compression injuries in chest, abdomen, pelvis and left leg."

Somehow, that morning the crane bucket had hit him.

In his final moments before he went unconscious he said he felt hot. He said he was having difficulty breathing.

Ritchie's nephew Harley was still recovering from his own accident on the port when he heard the news. Months earlier in August, Harley had been working as a stevedore for C3, another company that operates on the port, when a chain that wrapped around steel bars broke and collapsed onto his leg. His leg was snapped in half. He was supposed to have received a medical test, a port induction including a walk around the port, a drug test and to have watched a 40 minute DVD.

He had only received a drug test and the DVD before starting work, he told The Press.

Ad Feedback

"They seemed confident enough," he said.

Helen Dungey heard the news about her son in a phone call. The ports had been her life and she still took pleasure from painting scenes from it. Those paintings were everywhere in her home. But now the port had a different feel. Since her son's death she could not bring herself to paint.

"It feels tainted now," she said. "Whatever happened should not have happened."

While early reports from Maritime New Zealand laid the blame on Ritchie, saying he had "been in the wrong place at the wrong time", an investigation by The Press has revealed a more complex picture of overlapping, and often lacking, training and safety policies where inexperienced workers are pressured to work back-to-back shifts without rest. More experienced port workers are retiring early because of the risks they perceive exist there.

And while the Lyttelton Port Company (LPC) says that such incidents are the responsibility of third party companies that operate on the port, the issue is complicated by an increasingly blurred line of who is responsible and potentially liable for workplace death and injury.


ZERO HARM PLEDGED

Ports have always been dangerous places.

For generations, stevedores have been tasked with unloading vast hauls from vessels that travel oceans as part of the global economy. The difference now is that the work is largely mechanised. There are fewer dock workers and more large machinery which share a space in an ever increasing effort for efficiency.

"You are dealing with big things," says Maritime Union organiser Les Wells. "If a mistake is made, you are not going to get a paper cut. It's high stakes."

But while container volumes at Lyttelton have grown an average of 10 per cent a year for the last 20 years, the area in which workers operate has scarcely grown at all.

Last year the Lyttelton Port Company made a commitment to Zero Harm - the philosophy that its workplace should have no accidents or incidents. The men and women that work for a variety of companies on its sites should be safe to carry out their job.

LPC chief executive Peter Davie said: "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."

In its statement of intent to its majority shareholder Christchurch City Council, LPC said the concept of Zero Harm was "integral to the company's operational vision".

However, in its half-yearly report it had to mention two workplace deaths in the port within two months - including Warren Ritchie's.

Contractor Bill Frost, 58, of Coalgate, was killed in November after being pinned between a logging truck trailer and a forklift on the port's No 2 Wharf. Frost, who owned his own trucking company, had just finished a day's work spraying down dust with his water tanker.

He apparently was on his cellphone with his back turned when the bars of the truck, which held the logs, hit him, port sources said.

He wrote a monthly column for Zealand Trucking under the alias, "Just an old trucker" and was to celebrate his wedding anniversary the following day.

However, despite these incidents occurring on LPC controlled land, none of these, including the serious incidents like Harley Ritchie, contributed its health and safety record. In fact, LPC is on track to reduce its lost time injuries this year because the above incidents were all attributed to third party companies.

The only serious injury to an LPC employee occurred in January when a young forklift driver at the port's city depot suffered serious head and spinal injuries when a container fell on top of him.

But Lyttelton is not exceptional.

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

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

CHANGING SHIFTS

The entrance to Lyttelton Port is manned by two workers standing next to a no smoking sign. One takes a drag of a roll your own cigarette, mentions something about his forecast pay rise and then exhales. The steel door slides back. The green light goes on.

The port is changing shifts. The straddles, huge crane-like machines that pick up and drop off containers, sit idle while traffic managers make sure the coast is clear for passing cars.

At the far end of the port, reclamation of land is under way in an effort to increase the space where the port can operate.

According to LPC's 2012 annual report "The safety of our people continues to be our top priority."

However incidents continue to occur and some remain unreported, workers say.

"Corrective action reports" known as CAR reports, which are required to be filled in after any incident, are often ignored. Workers seldom fill them in anymore, sources allege, because they don't believe anything will be done about them.

"And if workers don't fill them in, then they didn't happen as far as management is concerned," a port source says.

Peter Davie denies this, saying that the port has 90 active CAR reports under review.

One CAR report seen by The Press from last month alleges that a logistics officer, which oversee the straddle operation, worked as a controller with no training.

"This should never happen," the report reads. "Unacceptable."

'EVERY OTHER WHARF IS STRICT AS'

One port worker described an incident where a young stevedore walked in between a crane bucket and a hopper, which material is dumped into. He narrowly missed being crushed by the bucket, much like Warren Ritchie did.

"There's been heaps of accidents, heaps of near misses," he says. "Every other wharf I've been onto in the country is strict as, about everything, breaks, safety, no speeding, stuff like that. They're real strict, Hi-vis gear all the time and if they see you doing unsafe acts, they kick you off the wharf, and that's it - they'll ban you for a week or they'll ban you for life.

"But it doesn't really seem to happen here. They don't seem to have done nothing since that dude [Ritchie] was killed. "

This is not true. In the wake of the two deaths, LPC moved to invest between $200,000 to $300,000 in health and safety measures. This included training up union delegates and officers and placing a well thought of former union man, Paul Dennis, in the job of health and safety officer. There was no permanent person in the job for a year before the appointment with the company instead relying on outside contractors to do the job.

However, despite the moves, RMTU's John Kerr contends that they should have been implemented earlier - before the four serious incidents took place. He says in that context, the new money is too little too late.

"If you think health and safety is a compliance cost, try killing people ... that's what disappointed me, they put a figure on it. It's indicative of a mentality that was lacking that sees health and safety as a cost rather than an absolute. It's something that shouldn't be compromised."

Peter Davie said as part of the measures to sure up health and safety, LPC was taking a more active interest in the way contracting companies operated. It marks a shift in how the company is thinking about those companies, spurred by the recent incidents and an impending shift in health and safety law.

Previously, in responses to accidents, the port would deflect criticism onto those companies, saying it was their responsibility.

"The ultimate is if people aren't working to safe standards, they won't be working in the port," Davie said this month.

Documents released to The Press under the Official Information Act show that there have been 11 serious harm incidents notified to WorkSafe New Zealand at the Lyttelton Port Company's work sites in the past five years.

Just counting the workers directly employed by LPC, the Accident Compensation Corporation has paid out $900,000 over that period as a result of 234 workplace claims.

WorkSafe New Zealand has also issued 18 enforcement notices to the company since December last year. These included:Seven prohibition notices issued which stopped work immediately until safety issues have been resolved Six improvement Notices where there were non-compliance with Health and Safety and Employment Act and Five written Warnings where there is a non-compliance with the Act but the issue is addressed before the inspector leaves the site.

Davie said he disagreed with some of the notices but it had worked to resolve all of them.

These were issued across January and February and included a warning to the port about failing to ensure the safety of LPC employees by stacking containers with misaligned castings and "significant tilt to one side".

This came just weeks after the forklift driver was hit and injured by a falling container.

WorkSafe also observed empty containers stacked seven high, which was usual practice, but the port had not done a risk assessment relating to wind or geotechnical conditions.

There was also a lack of directional signage, no speed limit signage and WorkSafe concluded that plant operators enter maintenance areas without knowledge or whereabouts of mechanics, according to reports.

WorkSafe saw unguarded rollers and pulleys putting workers at a risk of entrapment.

The written warnings mention damaged slings were damaged and ladders that were bent, broken and twisted in use.

While The Press toured the port, reporters witnessed a fertiliser truck driver who allowed his 16-year-old daughter to drive on the wharf during a visit.

"It's just like forestry," says another port source, "These accidents should not happen."

Harley Ritchie was working for C3 when his leg was broken in half. X-Rays show clean breaks through his tibia and fibula.

He says he was meant to have an induction, including a walk around the port, as well as medical test and a drug test. All he had was a drug test and was shown a DVD.

He had worked on the port before but never with steel. On the day of his injury he was unloading steel beams with another more experienced worker.

The other worker stopped to hit the beams into position with a wooden object, as is often done, but the chain broke. The beams came crashing down on his leg. If he had been slower reacting, he would have been under it, he was told.

"It was like a battering ram. My leg was snapped and was left hanging there," he says.

Harley is still on crutches living on his girlfriend's parents farm near Gore. He had two surgeries - cutting his knee in half and inserting a rod down the middle of it.

"That'll be there forever. I'm still coming right."

He can't stand up for more than a couple of hours at a time and lives with constant pain.

Harley was one of a slew of younger casual workers that man the ports. They are called in by the stevedoring companies when the work is there.

They work "rolling eights" - eight hours on, eight hours off. Some would work 7am to 3pm and then come back and work 11pm to 7am. Which after six shifts can get to you, Harley says. After four hours sleep for several days in a row, fatigue creeps in.

"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 are. If you don't answer the phone or turn up, they don't call you back."

The Maritime Union has a clause whereby after four eight-hour shifts, workers are allowed to refuse. Other workers, like those in logging, are permitted to work 12-hour shifts.

The Press has also learned of workers that will work at the port and have jobs on the side, either at another company at the port or somewhere else.

Another worker said some were working seven days a week and "getting run down".

"One just finished a 28-day stint and that's driving [a forklift] 10 hours a day."

Files released to The Press show that in 2011, workers reported an accident where a worker was unloading scaffolding with a small crane when the load spread and pinned his leg against a bollard. It was thought fatigue could have been a factor.

Another worker spoken to admitted he worked nights at the port and days at a labouring job in the city. He admitted that he would often work at the port after having two hours of sleep per night for several days in a row. This was not unusual for other workers, he said.

LPC chief executive Peter Davie said it was due to such incidents that it was now working to bring the third party companies under more scrutiny.

"It is the individual companies' responsibility to look after health and safety but our biggest wake up call was that we actually have to put more pressure on to make sure they are working to a high enough standard."

Under new health and safety legislation before Parliament, companies could be fined up to $3 million and individuals locked up for putting employees at risk. Companies will also be responsible for the health and safety of subcontractors, with the bill preventing safety obligations being "contracted away".

Importantly, directors and board members could also be accountable.

'WE DON'T WANT ANYONE KILLED'

They gathered at the memorial in the pouring rain. At a reserve on Moorhouse Avenue, they stood and remembered lives lost while working in Canterbury.

In all the years that Paul Corliss had attended, he never remembered Lyttelton Port Company attending. But this time, on Sunday, April 28, they did. It was a gesture, but one that meant something, he says.

Corliss has spent decades in unions - he was an organiser in 2000 when a spate of workplace deaths on rail and ports led him to label the trend "nightmare material". There had been 21 deaths in five years and "something needed to be done".

He joined the rising call for a national inquiry into rail safety. There was. It resulted in a new health and safety practices across Tranz Rail.

In Australia, the Maritime Union has called for a national stevedoring code of practice after describing the situation with workers "a safety crisis". A document outlining its case points to other industries which have codes of practice - construction, manufacturing and seafaring - all of which had lower fatality rates than waterfront work.

"One of the clearest solutions was national standards," Corliss says. "Take the health and safety out of the equation. We all agree that we don't want anyone killed."

LPC chief executive Peter Davie acknowledged to The Press that this was being discussed with other port bosses around the country. Already there was greater information sharing.

"We have always said we are happy to share with one another," he said. But this had been haphazard in the past.

When asked whether such an arrangement would be formalised into a policy document, he said that it would "evolve" but he would be keen to see it happen.

On a recent morning Helen Dungey drove from Brighton and through the Lyttelton Tunnel. When she emerged, her heart raced - the Citrus Venus was moored up at the port, back at the place where her son had died.

"It was a bit of a shock," she said. "It gave me an awful feeling."

Dungey was taken back to the day when her daughter Michelle had called to say Warren had died, to when she drove over to Michelle's house and saw a policewoman walking down the stairs toward her.

"He's not, is he?" Helen asked.

The officer nodded.

She could not see him for two days while a post mortem was done. She spent Christmas day with him at the funeral parlour. Her daughter told her that she had lost the twinkle from her eye.

When Helen looked at the Citrus Venus she imagined her son was still there working. She watched as the ship's crane dunked its bucket into the hold and pulled out its load. She wanted to get it clear in her head what the scene might have looked like.

From the port's viewing platform she took some photographs.

She thought one day that she might paint something from them. Dungey felt that when she painted an image it took her back to a place and time. But she wondered - who would want them?

She still felt her son around her home. He loved it there, she said. He was the rock of the family. So the polished wooden box would stay on her bedroom dresser sitting just below the photograph and the hat Warren was wearing when he died. It was almost six months since that day, and while she felt the pain of it every time she went to Lyttelton, she did not blame anyone for his death.

The port was just a dangerous place, she said. Also, there had been a change of late. She had started painting again.

Tess McClure and Nicole Matthewson contributed reporting

- The Press

Comments

Special offers

Featured Promotions

Sponsored Content