2015_Tianjin_explosion Credit Eristic-霖璟
Tianjin Port explosion in 2015. Credit Eristic-霖璟

The proliferation of automated terminals around the globe are seeing union pushback, not just because of the loss of jobs, but also because they pose new challenges around safety, according to one union chief.

Speaking exclusively to The Loadstar, president of the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) in Canada Rob Ashton said the equipment used on automated terminals all used lithium-ion batteries stored close to operational areas.

“With the amount of batteries this equipment uses it is only a matter of time before something horrific happens,” claimed Mr Ashton.

A li-ion battery fire at an automated terminal could be catastrophic, he said, given that the batteries burn at temperatures in excess of 1,000° C.

“The information I have is once those fires go, it’s basically, let’s make sure as many people are safe as we can,” said Mr Ashton.

Moreover, according to the union, there has been little or no training for dock workers in how to handle the potential risks posed by li-ion battery fires or how cargo with li-ion batteries should be stored.

Mr Ashton said this could be a critical problem for automated terminals, given that they need a lot of batteries to maintain operations, swapping discharged units with fully charged batteries, and those power packs will need to be stored at the terminal.

“So, if that warehouse ever goes up, heaven forbid, the damage would be catastrophic for surrounding communities,” he warned. “And that’s why automation or battery-operated artificial intelligence equipment is not the way to go.”

In addition, Mr Ashton said there were concerns around the mining of lithium and cobalt, the latter a key substance in the production of li-ion batteries.

“I’m not an expert,” said Mr Ashton, “But the conditions in the mines in which the workers source this stuff are horrible.”

According to Mr Ashton, terminal operators should be looking for better and safer ways to ‘green’ the terminal operating business, including the use of hydrogen, which he says is considerably safer and healthier than the electrification through li-ion batteries.

He added: “Hydrogen burns relatively clean, you don’t have the issues with the batteries, you don’t have the issues with the poor miners that are pulling it [minerals] out of the ground and we always keep workers in the seats of the equipment.”

Automation is not the panacea the terminal operators say it is, claimed Mr Ashton. Terminal operators from around the world say automation is about sustainability and safety, but “I think that’s a bunch of BS”, he said, “it is more about cutting costs”.

In the ILWU’s view: “All automation does is take money out of the pockets of workers and give it to the corporations. They don’t have to pay wages, they don’t have to pay safety costs, they don’t have to pay pensions or benefits, so they get to pocket all that money… and that’s unacceptable.”

For the union, the major safety concerns around automation terminals mean the proposed terminal at Vancouver’s Roberts Bank should be reconsidered. Unions believe the only safe working conditions will be where workers control machines.

Mr Ashton cites two accidents in Vancouver Port, where two dock workers were killed doing work they would still need to carry out on an automated terminal. He said dock work itself was “inherently dangerous”, and that local union representatives on safety committees should sit down with employers to thrash out safe work procedures.

“When we hammer out safe work procedures, first and foremost we look to make sure our workers are safe and can do the work safely and efficiently, and then we look at what it does to surrounding communities,” explained Mr Ashton.

Ports are part of the communities that they operate in and unions want to be “good neighbours,” he added.

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