After fatal accidents, unions put spotlight on port safety

OAKLAND, Calif. — After the second fatal accident at the Port of Oakland in 10 weeks, port workers and their union are raising urgent concerns about safety at the nation’s fourth largest port.

Edward Hall, 47, was killed Dec. 3 when he was struck by a large tractor-trailer truck. Hall, who was working as a shipping agent for Hanjin, was apparently checking lists of cargo on the container ship Yang Ming as it finished docking. The driver of the truck, who was waiting to move containers from the ship to another part of Hanjin’s property at the port, said he didn’t see Hall.

A few months prior, on Sept. 24, Reginald Ross, 39, a longshoreman, died following an accident aboard a Hapag-Lloyd ship, the Stuttgart Express. He was crushed as a container was lowered into place.

Leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) met with shipping company officials of the Pacific Maritime Association last week to voice their concerns about the impact of the shippers’ demands for ever-faster production. Discussions were slated to continue this week.

“Longshore work is a very dangerous industry, as are other types of work at the port,” Farless Dailey, secretary-treasurer of ILWU Local 10, which represents Port of Oakland longshore workers, said in a telephone interview.

“Ultimately,” he added, “the biggest factor in causing accidents at the port is the employers’ demands for increased production.” Dailey said one firm has actually taken the union to court, contending the workers are not moving fast enough. “We are constantly battling the employers over speedup,” he said.

Contributing to the push for speedup, he said, is the “just-in-time” system of production and distribution that has drastically reduced the warehousing of goods.

Besides the fatalities, workers at West Coast ports have suffered many non-fatal accidents, Dailey said, including some causing serious injuries.

The longshore contract the ILWU negotiated with the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association in 2002 is set to expire July 1, 2008. While specific approaches to the negotiations will be decided when representatives elected by the longshore unions meet in caucus starting late next month, ILWU Communications Director Craig Merrilees said he expects safety will figure significantly in the talks.

“The general public doesn’t always appreciate how dangerous longshore jobs are,” Merrilees said. “People don’t need to die on the job. Many workers feel there are types of work where accidents are more likely. We’d like to explore these.”

The ILWU says at least 25 of its members, mostly longshore workers but also including members of the Inlandboatmen’s Union, have died on the job in the last decade.

In the last 18 months alone, the ILWU has lost five members. Besides Reginald Ross, those who have died include Jose “Pepe” Perez Correa of Local 54, whose truck crashed through a railing into deep water in Stockton, Calif., and Kenneth Eddo of Local 23, who was killed on the Tacoma docks when the container he was towing rolled over.

Also, two members of Local 19 were killed: Joseph Aliseo, who was run over by a top loader at APL’s intermodal yard in Seattle, and Dan Miller, who suffered a fatal heart attack aboard a ship at the Port of Tacoma’s SSA Terminal.

mbechtel @pww.org