Crying Shame

Employers pick fight over hatchmen.

“My daughter gets pretty upset every time she knows I’m going to work,” said John “She’s nine. She cries. She hears me on the phone. It’s going all the time even when I’m not at work. She overhears what’s going on – how many people are getting hurt or killed.”

John (not his real name) a safety delegate, is off work. He walks with a limp. A chain dropped on his foot.

“I can’t get my boot on,” he said.

But he’s more worried about his mates. And he’s not the only Australian waterside worker whose family no longer want their father, mother, husband or brother to go to work. After three deaths and countless injuries in the past year families are feeling the strain.

The union is working to bring in safety regulations on the wharves in an effort to enforce safety.

It’s all happening. But it’s going to take time.

People have to agree on the details. Get it through Government and deal with employer opposition to a regulatory approach to waterfront safety.

We need to get training under way, so new workers aren’t just brought in off the streets as casuals and sent down the ship’s hold to dodge 20 tonne slabs of steel swinging precariously overhead from rusting ship cranes, stumbling around awkward stow. And the employers are still pushing hard to put productivity before anything else.

One of the central battles is over the hatchman. Australian waterfront employers are moving systematically to remove the use of hatchmen in operations, particularly in the general stevedoring area where it is most important.

All the companies seem to be heading the same path on this issue.

Currently members at Patrick general stevedoring are taking protected action around a number of safety related issues among other bargaining matters.

The message is the same. Safety must come first.

Topman, they call him in Freo. The bosses don’t want him. Or her. Or they only want him or her around sometimes, not all the time. The workers say they believe it is unsafe to work without him. And in four ports this year – Fremantle, Bunbury, Darwin and Townsville – they’ve walked off the job due to those safety concerns.


In Fremantle it went to Fair Work Australia. The union won.

It all centres around the interpretation of Marine Order 32 – a. The driver has an unrestricted view of the load at all times during the loading or unloading; or b. A hatchman is employed for each crane or set of derricks that is clearly visible to the driver(s).

The workers say it’s no good going on the visibility at start of shift. You can never count on a clear view down the hold for long – the sun changes as it moves over the ship, the load can obstruct the view during a lift, the crane can be over the wharf when something on deck tumbles into the hold from above where crew are at work.

A major incident happened in Fremantle last year.

“We started work at 9am,” said John “We only did the three or four lifts when we got called off the ship. I was the leading hand down below. We’d put a hatchman there because we always have a hatchman. I’ve been working here 10-odd years and we always have a hatchman. “It’s about safety. That’s the way we were trained.”


“We got pulled off the job to do a JSA (job safety assessment),” he said. “(The shift manager) said he’d go and type it up. When he came back he didn’t come back with what we’d wrote. He came back with another thing. When we wouldn’t sign, we got threatened with the sack.”

After several hours backwards and forwards management came back with the JSA the men had done.

But they wanted the risk rating on the side changed and the workers said they wanted to add to the report.

“They gave us 10 minutes to sign or ‘you’ll be subject to disciplinary action and you may be sacked’, “ workers said.

“The guys said go and get stuffed – it’s not our JSA and we’re not signing it,” said Adrian Evans, Deputy Branch Secretary.

“So the dispute ended up around the JSA. Our members were stood down for refusing to sign a JSA that didn’t address the risks.”

Workers were stood down, off pay.

"We called Worksafe and were told an inspector was on his way but management stopped Worksafe and went to Fair Work claiming it was an industrial issue.

“The day shift sat in the shed,” said Adrian. “They knocked off at seven when the night shift turned up.”

“Management said there’s an ongoing dispute. You guys are all stood down until the commission hears this tomorrow. “We had the commission hearing (with Fair Work) that afternoon,” said Adrian. “It went to a conference hearing and the delegates were involved.”

The Commissioner took an unusual step in deciding to come down to the wharves to have a look at what the issue was about. He even went up the crane.

“The master of the vessel wanted a hatchman in place. He said it was standard practice on his vessel. That’s how the ship worked in every other port in the world,” said Adrian.

The Commissioner conciliated and we reached agreement that there would be a hatchman in place for the duration of the vessel’s stay.

The workers won. But the dispute flared up again only weeks later. The labour stopped the job. It’s the same old argument every time a ship comes in. But the workers are standing firm.

“Hearing about the three fatalities is a factor for sure,” said POAGS workers. “We have never had a death in Fremantle and by the statistics we are way overdue. We’ve had a few injuries, no fatalities and we want to keep it that way. The hatchman is an extra set of eyes. We want to make sure we walk out the gate the same way we came in.”

How important is it to have a hatchman?

“I’d say about 12 times in 10 years there’s been a situation where a life was at risk,” said John. “And that’s just on my shift. That’s 2-3 near death experiences every 6-8 months.”

The workforce argues there’s always something happening – cargo falling, stuff toppling over, crew knocking dunnage into the hatch – plenty of things.

“The dunnage can be brand new pine and when there’s heavy stuff on it during the voyage the sap comes out and the wood sticks to the bottom of the cargo,” said the POAGs workers.

“As we get out of the way the hatchman can see there’s a bit of wood under there and so he gets on the radio and tells the boys on shore to be careful – it’s got a passenger. We call it a passenger.”

“There’s been several instances where the crew may get up in another crane and you might be doing a heavy lift and they move the crane,” they said.

“It will make the ship rock. You might be next to the hold wall and you can’t see but the hatchman will see and he’ll stop the crew. And he’ll stop the lift. You can’t see from down the hold up to the next crane. The crew could be in the pontoons on the other level and you can’t see they’re up there either. But the hatchman can see. And he can tell them to stop.

“Everything that can possibly go wrong possibly does,” he said. “You’ve only got to have another vessel going past while we are doing a direct lift and it moves the ship around. That moves the load and you’ve got people running everywhere to get out of the way. You need that extra pair of eyes, especially when we’ve got inexperienced guys working with us. It’s getting to the stage you don’t even want to be down in the hatch. Because you feel like you might not be going home.”

Assistant National Secretary Warren Smith is emphatic on the matter.

“The hatchman is about saving lives. It is a fundamentally important position and must be protected against employers who see it as a quick and easy way to reduce costs. It’s the workers who potentially pay; with their lives. The union will continue to fight for the hatchman.”


Workers at POAGS, Fremantle listed a dozen instances where the hatchman has possibly saved a life in recent months. “We had a 10-tonne crane beam fall down inside the hatch a few weeks back,” said a POAGs worker. “There was one section inside another and they are usually lashed together and they weren’t lashed together. It was midnight and no one noticed.”

He was the foreman on shore that night.

“I saw it happen,” he said. “I seen it because it was up nearly to the top of the hatch and it just touched the side. It’s just tipped up a little bit, but as it’s tipped up its shot out. The main piece shot towards the crane driver and the bit inside shot out and went straight down the bottom of the hatch.

“I thought someone was dead. I heard the hatchman yell out on the radio HEADS UP!!!.” “We were about 15 metres back away from it,” one worker down below said.

“I ran and got behind another piece of machinery that was down there. It was very loud when it hit. Then it slid. And we didn’t know which way it would go but it slid away from us luckily.

“The load was on rollers and as it hit the bottom of the hold it went at a hundred miles an hour, skidding about 20-30 metres. We had 3-4 crew plus four of our blokes down there at the time,” they said.

“They had all been standing there and the crew were standing there, but it was the last lift and they’d all moved over to the left,” they said. Did the ship roll? “When you’re thinking of your life you don’t think of whether it’s shaking the boat,” they said. “You absolutely shit yourself. It landed exactly where we’d been standing.

“It’s a wake-up call. We had a couple of new blokes. And that night they learnt the cargo doesn’t just come in and out all the time. Things do happen. “When he came out of the hatch I said, ‘You’re a bit white, mate’ and he said, ‘Phew, I see what you mean when you say always to get out of the way and that.’”

“The crane driver is devastated,” they said. “He’s taken his name of the crane list. And he’s still in shock two weeks later.”

Then there was the bulldozer part that toppled over, four months earlier. Four men were working in a cargo space down the hatch and the crane was out over the shore. The hatchman was on deck.

“They were unlashing the cargo. The hatchman was looking over and saw it was going to topple. He yelled out to the guy unlashing down below. He jumped out of the way. The hatchman saved his life. It would have killed him,” said one worker.

“You tire on the midnight shift and you don’t see everything and that’s what the topman is for,” he said. “He’s a second pair of eyes.” “We’ve had other things fall, we’ve had steel plates fall, we’ve had things fall on shore.”

The hatchman once saw that a lift was actually catching a lanyon – the safety line across the hatch the men’s harnesses connect to. “If the crane pulls that up into the air, well the guys with the harnesses are going with it,” said a delegate.

“Luckily enough the top man saw what was happening and stopped the crane. “The crane driver can’t always see,” he said. “Anything can happen. Another crane could be working or the ship rolls, you’ve got wind conditions, you’ve got light conditions, you’ve got all sorts of things. Cranes break down. We drive cranes that aren’t up to scratch and the company want to take the topman away?

“We had the crew knock a piece of steel and it fell down the bottom into the hatch,” he said. “The hatchman had told them to stop working above us. He told us to get out of the way. But the crew said we’re nearly finished. Then they knocked this piece of steel and it fell.

If the hatchman wasn’t there and our guys were working underneath it they would have been gone.”

“The company doesn’t believe in it. They think the hatchman stands there and does nothing,” said John.

“But he saves lives. He makes it easy for everybody. People feel safer. People who work the job know the importance of a hatchman. People who don’t probably don’t see.

“Ours is a very dangerous job,” he said. “We’ve had deaths in the industry these past years. And if having a hatchman saves one life what’s it worth? What’s a life worth?

“We going to fight this to the end,” he said. “We’re not giving up. We’re not going to be told how to do our job safely by people who don’t know the job. Let us do our job and let us do our job safely.”