In the early hours of July 6 last year the MV Funing, a bulk carrier loaded with logs for China, lost power as it was leaving the Port of Tauranga. Before tugs could reach the disabled vessel it began to drift, snagging a channel marker and damaging its rudder and propeller.
When it was towed back to port engineers and divers assessed the damage and concluded that repairs would not be possible until its cargo – some 40,000 tonnes of stowed logs – had been discharged.
The port and the ship’s owner, Swire Shipping, went to C3 and asked it to take charge of the exercise, due to its expertise in product handling and forestry-aligned logistics.
The operation, however, was going to be what C3 – with masterful understatement – describes as “non-routine”. It involved ten different stakeholders, including the ship’s 20-man crew, who were to remain on board and shift ballast to keep the vessel stable, while at the same time maintaining strict isolation from local workers, in keeping with Covid-19 protocols.
There was also a host of technical problems, including machinery that exceeded the weight limit for the area where the ship was berthed, and holds treated with slow-release fumigation tablets that could have filled them with toxic and flammable gasses.
On top of all this it would, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, be the first time a logging ship had ever been unloaded in New Zealand.
“This country doesn’t import logs, so there was no specific fit-for-purpose equipment or task-specific experience we could call on,” says Deb Cameron, C3 Health, Safety, Environment and Risk Business Partner. “It wasn’t an easy decision for us to agree to undertake the operation, and there was a lot of discussion initially about whether it could be done safely.”
Through these discussions it quickly became clear that the only practical way forward would be a collaborative approach involving multiple stakeholders, allowing the company to draw on a broad range of skills and experience.
Fortunately, Swire Shipping, a long-term partner of C3, had alerted the company early in the piece that its services might be needed. By the time the decision to off-load the logs was made a preliminary safety assessment had been undertaken and discussions with the ship’s owner, the fumigation company, the supercargo (agent responsible for the cargo), and the port were under way.
Hayden Watson, who at the time was branch manager for C3 Mount Stevedoring (now regional manager with C3 Forestry Services), says it was good to have that lead time to talk with the other stakeholders about what could and couldn’t be done.
“With the Funing sitting at the wharf, our senior foreman and marshalling experts were able to have a good look at it and weigh up the potential risks for themselves.”
With a lot of risks to assess, decisions to make and information to share, C3 was determined not to rush the planning. Watson became something of a middleman, bringing together all parties – which by this point also included the crew, MPI, the border inspection agency, marine surveyors and the log exporter – but driving rather than dominating the dialogue.
Grappling with logs
Many of the stakeholders had worked with C3 and one another previously, providing a good starting point for a collaborative project in which all relevant information and available skills could be brought together, culminating in a final plan that would have everyone’s agreement.
In the absence of purpose-built equipment to discharge the logs C3 made the call to use the company’s two Sennebogen 860 material handlers for the bulk of the work.
“The ship’s cranes didn’t have grapples, and that would have meant having people in the hold for the whole operation. The Sennebogen are what we use to stack logs in the yard. They have a grapple, and quite a good reach.”
Early conversations with the port, however, picked up a flaw in the plan.
“They told us the point load of the machines was going to be too heavy for the berth.
“But we got some engineers in, and they said we could spread the load by laying beams on the wharf and putting outriggers on the machines.”
C3 was used to managing the obvious critical risks – falling logs, moving machinery – and the port agreed that the Sennebogen would operate behind a fixed railing to prevent people entering the work area.
“We also decided to only work day shifts, using natural light,” Watson says. “And because we had two machines operating, we would work methodically to make sure there was no risk of cross-over.
“It was going to make the job quite slow, but it’s easy to justify taking your time when it’s about safety.”
Communication with the ship’s crew presented different challenges. Their English was limited, and Covid-19 isolation protocols meant there could be no direct contact, yet they needed to be kept informed about activities on the ship, and to assist the discharge process by monitoring the vessel’s changing weight, and shifting ballast as required.
“It wasn’t easy, but we made it work. The agents for the supercargo were able to handle most with the dealings with the crew because that’s their area.”
Phosphene gas risk
For Deb Cameron, the prime focus during the planning stages was on controlling the complex hazards associated with the phosphene fumigant gas.
“The big thing with phosphene is that it’s heavier than air so won’t disperse naturally if you just open the hatches,” she says. “We did vent the holds and trialled the use of fans, but they didn’t do enough, so we knew there could be quite dense pockets of gas among the logs when we started moving them.”
Phosphene gas is both highly toxic and flammable, so Cameron worked closely with fumigation company Genera, learning all she could about the associated risks and controls, and what information C3’s stevedores would need to keep themselves safe.
“We did a lot of education with our workers during the pre-planning stage, explaining the risks, telling them what to look out for, what the procedure was if they detected gas, and developed some specific toolbox talks to ensure the safety information was part of each prestart meeting.
“We also did emergency response drills, involving breathing apparatus, with the crew on the vessel, and engaged with the emergency services prior to discharge, so they knew what we were doing.”
Workers were given gas monitors, and arrangements made for both C3’s foremen and Genera staff to carry out regular atmospheric testing.
“Our monitors test for a range of gases – all the things you might find in a hold – but the Genera ones are set up specifically for phosphene, so it was good to be able to use both,” Watson says.
The big area of uncertainty on the job was how far into the hold the Sennebogens would be able to reach, especially when the ship moved higher in the water as its load was removed.
People in holds
Tides too were going to have an impact on the machines’ reach, and while this could be offset to some extent by moving ballast, the ultimate outcome was largely unknown territory.
Watson’s key concern with this was that the discharge of any logs beyond reach of the Sennebogens would rely on the ship’s crane, and that meant putting stevedores inside the hold to pack logs into bunks (cradles) and slings for lifting.
“We wanted to avoid that as much as possible because it meant exposing people to moving logs and suspended loads, not to mention the increased risk of phosphene pockets at the bottom of the hold.”
C3’s people had experience of working inside shipping holds but had never before worked in the environment while logs were being discharged.
“We sometimes have to go onto vessels to mark off logs, but this was going to be different. Some of our people would have to walk on the logs, and we needed safe zones within the hold so the guys could sling the logs and go back to a safe zone for the lift.”
Again, the experience of other stakeholders proved valuable, allowing C3 to build on their already proven practices to accommodate the new situations.
“We’ve always used a safety cage to lift stevedores in and out of the hold, ensuring they are put down in a safe place, away from operations, and that they had hard surfaces, like the lids of hatches, to stand on. If they had to walk on logs, we gave them shoes with spikes, and we provided toolbox talks for the whole process to make sure everyone knew the risks and the procedures in the JSA.”
It was some three weeks before Cameron and Watson knew the right controls were in place for work to begin, and the operation itself lasted a similar period, finishing in early September.
Watson says cargo handling always involves changing complexities, and this project had its share, including the arrival of a second ship on which the discharged logs were to be loaded.
It meant mid-operation changes to the traffic management plan, and new rosters to divide the 30 or 40 operational staff into two teams, but health and safety performance was unimpeded, and the job completed without incident, injury or phosphene gas alert.
As for the Sennebogens, C3’s decision to use them was vindicated.
“They got down to about the 6-metre mark in the holds and were good machines to use.”
Cameron and Watson say they learned a lot from the operation but know that without a team approach such a successful outcome would have been impossible.
“I think good health and safety outcomes in the port industry can only be achieved when there is collaboration between PCBUs,” Cameron says. “We’ve all got different skills, knowledge and experiences, and together we can achieve a lot.”
QUESTION: Under the HSW Act, PCBUs operating on the same site must consult, cooperate and coordinate with each other, just like C3 did. In your experience, do companies understand and apply this better than they did under the previous legislation's principal/contractor approach?