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Danger on the Docks : Longshoremen's Deaths Lead Union, Industry to Re-Examine Safety in Era of Container Ships

November 17, 1985|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

One sunny morning last March, Eddie Medina and Ines Gaxiola boarded the M. S. Oriental Patriot docked at the Port of Long Beach. A heavy dew had fallen, and the two longshoremen walked slowly to avoid slipping as they traversed the tops of cargo containers stacked 32 feet high on the ship's deck.

Working on opposite sides of the containers, backs turned to one another, the men used long poles to reach down and unfasten the boxes so a crane could later lift them ashore.

Medina didn't notice his partner disappear.

"I don't know what happened," the dockworker recalled. "I never heard anything or saw anything."

Medina discovered Gaxiola sprawled on the ship's deck. He apparently had lost his footing and fallen. Carried unconscious from the dock, the 46-year-old San Pedro resident died at a hospital.

Three months later, longshoreman Steve Suryan was working on the M. V. Fver Lyric in Los Angeles Harbor. Shortly after midnight, as the 26-year-old Long Beach resident walked down a passageway, a crane became entangled in some cables left on the deck and lurched back. Suryan, pinned between the crane and a container, was crushed to death.

Gaxiola and Suryan were two of the five dockworkers killed at the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports in the 12 months that ended in June. Three of the deaths occurred at the ports' sprawling container cargo terminals. The other two occurred while steel was being handled. There have been no deaths since.

The five deaths follow a decade in which fatalities among longshoremen have ranged from one to three a year in Southern California, and they have raised concerns among union leaders, company officials and federal safety regulators. To varying degrees, they worry that technology--especially the container cargo revolution--has so changed the job of longshoremen that more training, new safety regulations and improved equipment may be needed.

But there are also concerns that new regulations recently adopted are hurting productivity.

Despite the recent increase in fatalities, employers say the number of accidents on the Los Angeles and Long Beach waterfronts has been declining. According to Pacific Maritime Assn. figures gleaned from reports by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, there were 12.6 injuries per 100 dockworkers that involved lost time at work in 1984, 20% lower than in 1980.

Longshoremen's work has always been dangerous, company and union officials agree. Some areas, like steel handling, which accounted for two of the deaths, have changed little in recent years. But in some ways, the profession has grown more dangerous as the amount of cargo stowed in containers has increased, they say.

Before shippers took to using huge containers to transport cargo, a longshoreman unloading or loading a ship could expect to labor for days with the same regular gang of about 10 men, relying on a strong back, brute force and shared knowledge to carry bundles and boxes and crates.

Now he is more likely to be dispatched to a dock alone, to work a job he may never have done before.

At the same time, longshoremen who used to operate winches and forklifts are working the controls of large trucks or cranes 80 feet tall, capable of lifting 40-foot-long, 33-ton containers off ships three football fields long.

New Working Environment

"There has been a revolution in technology that has created a whole new working environment," said Dave Arian, president of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union Local 13, which has campaigned for new safety rules. "The traditions that longshoremen have been used to working around have been radically altered, but the safety conditions have not."

"The longshoreman today is not equipped or properly trained to deal with modern cargo-handling facilities," said Dino Rossi, a vice president at Long Beach Container Terminal Inc., which employs hundreds of dockworkers through the union. " . . . We really haven't changed the set of working rules on the waterfront."

The union and employers have agreed on several new safety measures in light of the three container-related deaths, and federal officials are considering new safety regulations.

The idea of hauling ocean cargo in containers is generally credited to shipping magnate Malcolm P. McLean, who in the late 1950s started transporting truck trailers on the unused decks of tanker ships. The concept was simple: Both time and money could be saved if cargo was placed in the trailers or other containers and loaded and unloaded directly from ships to trucks.

Over the decades, the amount of cargo carried in containers, which are generally 20 or 40 feet long, 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide, has grown rapidly, and now accounts for at least half of the general cargo moving in and out of the nation's ports, according to Rex Sherman, a spokesman for the Virginia-based American Assn. of Port Authorities. (General cargo includes everything but bulk commodities such as grain, and large items such as automobiles.)

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