Maritime workers walked off docks shortly after the tragic death of a fellow worker on Wednesday at the Appleton dock in West Melbourne. The strike action was called quickly, and applied around the nation at all twenty-seven P&O Automotive and General Stevedoring (POAGS) ports, with work resuming yesterday afternoon. The press was quick to report on the accident, but in their haste remained unclear on a few facts.

The 41-year-old father of two was indeed struck by a beam during a lifting operation, which can be loosely termed as ‘rigging’. Conventional rigging involves the mechanical lifting of an object, using a crane or pulley system (such as a chain block) to suspend the object from above. Rigging can also include the lifting of objects by jacking from beneath, but only in the loosest sense of the term.

Most coverage of this story described the incident as a crane accident. The Age yesterday stated that “a 2.7-tonne steel beam fell from a crane”. Channel 9 also said a “steel drum…was being lifted by a crane when it suddenly collapsed”.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYL46VoQ3pM[/youtube]

Any confusion about how the accident took place stems from a Worksafe press release, which inaccurately describes the lifting devices used as being “similar to a gantry crane”. The three-tonne weight is also referred to in this release.

Naturally, these details have been regurgitated and simplified, so that readers are led to believe that the incident was a crane accident. No cranes were involved in this incident. According to Kevin Bracken, branch secretary for the MUA in Victoria, the following took place:

A very large steel vessel was resting atop a rigging assembly of two rolled steel joist beams mounted on four hydraulic jacks. A low-loader truck was driven beneath the rig and the drum was to be lowered on to its trailer. While the jacks were being lowered one of them seized up, which caused the weight of the load to shift unevenly and tip off of its mounting position, which forced the beam to fall from its position on the other two jacks.

The most important question to be asked is about the positioning of the worker, a position that did not take into account the potential for accident. It is common policy in workplaces where rigging is performed to ensure that all workers are clear of any danger areas while a lift is in progress. Riggers will perform their duties while the load is at rest, and once all personnel are clear of the area then the machinery can be activated. Rigging is a high risk occupation, and riggers have to develop a keen sense for when and where they should perform their duties.

The tragedy of the worker’s death could not have been predicted by anyone at the time, nor perhaps the fact that one of the jacks would seize during a lift. Rigging equipment should be subjected to safety inspections before every lift, a protocol of the trade that is frequently ignored due to time constraints, or simple blind faith. However, it is the responsibility of all workers to be aware of their surroundings. The central question is whether the worker was required to be in that position during the lift, or if he had chosen to stand there. If he was required to be there, that would indicate a fault in the lift plan or an absence of a lift plan altogether.

The call for national regulation in the stevedoring industry by the MUA is now stronger than ever. Recent deaths in the industry indicate that something is amiss and centralisation of the law is long overdue. The mining industry has been quite effective at self-regulation in recent years, but it seems that the same has not happened in stevedoring.

The mining industry is largely driven by self-interest when it comes to worker safety. Deaths result in lawsuits, so companies that protect their workers protect themselves. Rigging operations in the mining and construction industries are complemented by reams of paperwork, which workers are expected to read and sign to indicate their understanding of the dangers of specific tasks (and possibly to disclaim their rights, or the rights of families and unions to claim compensation in the event of an accident).

The MUA allowed its workers to resume work yesterday afternoon, without any formal agreements with POAGS made. The purpose of the strike was not to force POAGS to comply with any demands, but to mark the death as significant and to highlight the issue nationally. This is part of the campaign for national regulation of the stevedoring industry. Representatives of the MUA are in discussion with Worksafe this morning.

Kevin Bracken attended the scene immediately after the accident. He says that all workers at the Appleton docks are extremely distressed about the death.

“We’ve said that we need regulation in the stevedoring industry, and Worksafe Victoria recognise that. They worked with us and the companies to develop industry guidance notes after we had two fatalities here in 2007,” Bracken told Crikey.

“Quite often we say to companies ‘that’s not following the industry guidance notes’ and they say that they don’t have to follow the industry guidance notes — so that’s not good and that’s why we believe we need regulation,” says Bracken. “There’s not a workplace in the country where they shouldn’t go and start working without a proper inspection to identify any hazards, and it should be done by an OH&S representative.”

“Another thing that’s gone by the wayside is vessel inspections: It’s in the industry guidance notes that there should be vessel inspections taking place, and you wouldn’t believe the opposition you get from management about this happening.” Bracken told Crikey. “They don’t want to roster people on, before the shift starts, to actually go and do the inspections. There’s two things affecting this- there’s a push for more productivity, and they’re trying to do it with less men.”

“So there’s problems in the stevedoring industry. We want make sure that at least our members are not facing death when they go to work. We’re not taking it lightly, we’re very resolved about making sure this doesn’t happen again.”

A spokesperson for POAGS made the following statement to Crikey:

“The development of national standards for the industry is something that’s ongoing – There are agreed national standards and unions have over time been involved in those discussions with operators like POAGS. There is state legislation in place that outlines workplace safety, and the workplace safety systems that are in place at POAGS are the national industry standard. They comply with the Worksafe laws, and as in any workplace they are under constant review. The union has for some time been running a campaign for federal legislation, rather than this being a sort of voluntary code. POAGS has sought representation on that federal committee, which should be introducing new OH&S legislation in 2012.”