The reality of assessing accident levels in ports



International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), dockers’ section



It is notoriously difficult to establish accurately the number of accidents that take place in ports around the world. Trade unions, which by definition prioritize the health and safety of workers above port profit, often find it difficult to pin down the exact extent of accidents. This is because in some instances there is a disparity between employer health and safety records and the first-hand accounts of workers on the ground. In a recent case, an employer was given an award for high health and safety standards, while reports from a group of workers accused the company of allowing them to work without appropriate safety equipment. Vastly differing health and safety requirements in different countries also add to this difficulty for a global union federation like the ITF.

While accident numbers may be hard to pin point, what is clear is that the single most impacting factor on health and safety in ports is the employment of workers through contractors. Though employers may stick to stringent accident prevention measures when it comes to their own employees, in many cases the contractors who they farm work out to, are not held to the same standards. This type of casualization is becoming more and more commonplace in ports as employers strive to maximize profit margins by doing away with unionized workforces in a position to negotiate over pay and conditions.  Unions worldwide are dealing with a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality, which can see health and safety standards slip below the acceptable.

The importance of safe systems

The ITF strongly believes that good safety representatives on the ground and safe systems of work are the way to minimize the risk of workplace accidents in ports. Large scale contracting out of work is not conducive to this. Port accidents range in severity from cut fingers to the loss of limbs. In some countries fatalities are relatively rare, but even in developed countries where health and safety legislation standards are high, deaths in ports can still occur…

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