Stevedoring – An Essential Component of Maritime Trade

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(Image Courtesy: Solent Stevedores)

Stevedoring is an occupation which involves loading and unloading of cargo on ships. It also includes various other dockside functions. The people engaged in this occupation are known as ‘stevedores’ (in the UK and Europe). However, in the United States and other areas they are addressed as longshoremen.

Stevedores need heavy machinery, such as tractors, trailers, cranes and forklifts. Work pertaining to documentation and maintenance of records is done manually (where machinery is not required e.g. labour or clerical work). The businesses which specialise in loading and unloading vessels are referred to as ‘stevedoring companies’.

Cargo Handling

At present, the vast majority of non-bulk cargo is transported in intermodal containers. The containers arrive at a port by truck, rail or another ship and are stacked in the port’s storage area. When the ship arrives, the containers that it is offloading are unloaded by a crane.

The containers either leave the port by truck or rail or are put in the storage area until they are put on another ship. Once the ship is offloaded, the containers loaded on trucks are brought to the dock. A crane lifts the containers from the trucks into the ship. As the containers pile up on the ship, the workers secure them to the ship and to each other.

The job involved includes crane operators, the workers who connect the containers to the ship and each other, the truck drivers that transport the containers from the dock and storage area, the workers who track the containers in the storage area as they are loaded and unloaded, as well supervisors.

Past & Present

Until recent decades, stevedores primarily boarded merchant vessels, immediately as the vessel entered a harbour to load / unload the cargo from there, at this point, dockers or longshoremen would handle the goods as soon as vessel was in the dock.

This distinction has lost some of its originality with the advent of containerised shipping. Today, modern stevedoring is equipped with the entire range of cargo handling gear. Since containerisation, it has produced a lot of advantages for international trade and to all stake holders. There is no doubt, that stevedoring had evolved due to containerisation.

Manpower & Skillsets

People working in the stevedoring profession usually do not need high education but they do need to acquire licenses or pre-training to operate heavy machinery. Many people who enter this job enjoy ships and working outdoors. Stevedores are the people who work on the wharfs and on the ships, loading and unloading the cargo.

They operate derricks and cranes on the ship as well as the huge container cranes on ship or on shore. On containerships, stevedores take containers from the storage area to the crane and from the crane to the storage area. They secure containers to the ship and to each other. On some wharfs, they may also operate conveyor belts or drive cars on or off ships.

Stevedores need to be strong and fit. Those who work outdoors need to wear warm clothes during winters and wet weather gear when it is raining. They work in shifts so that a port can operate 24 hours a day.

Loading and unloading ships requires know-how of the operation of loading equipment, proper techniques for lifting and stowing cargo, and correct handling of hazardous materials. In addition, workers must be physically strong and be able to follow orders.

(Image Courtesy: Live Mint)

Related Avenues

The work of a stevedore varies depending on the type of port. For example, at passenger ports, stevedores will control and guide passengers and their vehicles as they pass through the port, while on roll-on/roll-off ferries, stevedores may drive the vehicles that carry trailers on and off the ships.

At container ports, stevedores may use forklifts and cranes to handle cargo. In some ports, the stevedore has a wide range of responsibilities including the physical loading, securing and unloading of cargo, driving vehicles to transport cargo within the port, and operating highly technical loading and unloading equipment.

However, in other ports, the work may be narrower. For example, some stevedores work solely as crane drivers. Port authorities and private cargo handling or stevedoring companies employ stevedores and port operatives. Stevedores work as a team to safely and efficiently make cargo move.

Importance of Stevedoring in Maritime Trade

Ships make money at sea when they are carrying cargo between ports, but when they are alongside a port, they cost money to their owner. Therefore, ports and terminals need to be efficient to minimise port time, and get the ship back on its journey as soon as possible. The role of stevedoring companies, which organise the cargo-handling in ports is very important in this respect as it can make a great difference to the profitability of the voyage.

The Challenge

Stevedores work round-the-clock shifts to load and unload cargoes to and from ships as safely and quickly as possible. As such, they are an important link in the supply chain that stretches from the consumer to the producer of the cargo.

With cargo movement at ports generally a 24-hour, seven days a week job, stevedores work in shift patterns to ensure that there is always cover on the dock when a ship needs to be loaded or unloaded. The work is manual in nature and can be physically demanding, and stevedores can be out on the dock in all weather. Stevedores may also spend some time inside in the ship’s hold or in cargo storage, which can be cramped and uncomfortable.

As world trade increases, there is a growing demand for stevedores internationally. However, stevedores have come under increasing pressure to improve work productivity, while the advent of fully automated terminal machinery has threatened some jobs. Yet their role remains a key to the import/export of billions of tonnes of cargo traded worldwide.

Sea News Feature, January 10