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What’s the problem?

In recent years, various contributing factors have led to the development of a global network of specialised container terminals operated by both national and global logistics companies. The consequences of this development for workers’ experience of safety, health and working conditions in container terminals have rarely been the subject of systematic study.[1]

The researchers examined health and safety arrangements in container terminals operated by national and global logistics companies in several countries. The aim of the research was to:

  • provide a better understanding of workers’ experiences of these arrangements in container terminals in different parts of the world
  • assess the effectiveness of the arrangements
  • examine the wider determinants of both the nature of such experiences and the effectiveness of the arrangements in place to protect health and safety.

The research team examined two main questions:

  • what determines the health and safety outcomes and experiences of workers in container terminals?
  • what are effective managerial strategies to improve this experience?

This report presents the findings of a study of the experience of health and safety in container terminals operated by national and global companies in several countries. It explores indications from a previous, preliminary study concerning workers’ experiences and the effectiveness of the management systems to support their health, safety and welfare at work. It builds on the earlier findings with a more in-depth analysis, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods. It discusses the new findings in the context of an analysis of the relationship between corporate strategies for the governance and management of occupational health and safety (OHS) and the national regulatory and socio-economic contexts in which terminals operate and such strategies are implemented.

What did our researchers do?

The researchers used a mixed-methods approach to analyse case studies of 11 container terminals. These terminals were operated by six large companies in four countries in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. The research team analysed company documents and carried out interviews with company and terminal managers. Interviewees included senior company and terminal managers with responsibility for:

  • operations
  • health and safety
  • advising on these matters at both corporate and terminal levels.

The researchers focused on company strategies on health and safety and the systems in place for its delivery, and sought a detailed account of their operation as perceived by the company and terminal managers. They considered trends in available company data concerning the health and safety outcomes of these arrangements and, as far as it was possible to do so, compared them with the findings of other research on health and safety outcomes in container terminals.

At the same time, workers’ experiences of these arrangements for the governance and management of health and safety were investigated using a questionnaire-based worker survey concerning both workers’ health and safety and the systems in place to manage their protection. Overall, there were 1,849 dockworker respondents to this survey, with an additional 120 completing a diary of their experiences in relation to selected indicators of health, safety and welfare. The researchers also undertook interviews with workers and their representatives in all the terminals.

In addition, in each country where the terminals were situated, the research team reviewed national regulatory regimes and their provisions, and carried out interviews with regulators and other key informants with particular concerns with OHS in terminals. In total, the researchers collected and analysed qualitative data from 178 interviews with managers, workers and key informants.

What did our researchers find out?

Company approaches to managing safety

The approaches taken by most of the global and national terminal operators towards the governance and management of health and safety had several common features. They aimed to address risks fairly systematically by carrying out risk assessments and introducing engineering or administrative controls. There were standard operating procedures in place, which took account of safety issues and maintaining safety-critical plant and equipment according to scheduled specifications. Information, informal training, supervision and direct consultation with workers on risk management were provided. More training was provided to new staff, and updated for continuing staff, using both formal and informal arrangements.

In parallel with these routine job safety arrangements, the safety management systems in place in all the terminals aimed to ensure continuous improvement, and included procedures for collecting and disseminating information on safety issues, monitoring performance, and timely interventions when required. The safety (and environment) departments in all of the terminals serviced these arrangements, and provided advice and training. In some cases, they participated in the surveillance of safety behaviours. Generally, managers in the terminals believed these arrangements to be ‘fit for purpose’. Among the drivers of corporate approaches to health and safety taken by the companies studied, two were particularly influential: a high-profile, boardroom-level commitment to ‘zero harm’; and a strong behaviour-oriented approach to the operation of terminal-level arrangements.

These drivers were transposed into operational practice through a mix of:

  • attention to an organisational ‘vision’ of achieving high performance and continuous improvement in health and safety outcomes
  • improvements in organisational safety culture, health and safety competencies
  • the training and skills of personnel
  • measurable performance targets for health and safety.

At the same time, notions of accountability for health and safety were instilled among workers and managers alike. Equally influential were the effects of international and national voluntary standards on OHS management, which helped to stimulate and support the adoption of a similar management systems approach to health and safety by all the companies studied. As is often the case with behaviour-based systems for health and safety,[1] institutional arrangements for representation and consultation with workers on their health and safety were largely ignored or marginalised. The survey data demonstrated that 70 per cent of respondents globally had no health and safety representative or had difficulty accessing one. Also, despite an acknowledgement that recent trends in the development of terminal work open the way for employment of an increased proportion of women, there was little evidence of strategies or action on OHS management in place to support the likely needs created by this change.

Workers’ experiences

The survey of workers’ experiences indicated considerably higher levels of work-related harm than measured by company data, and substantial dissatisfaction with the nature and operation of arrangements for managing health and safety. There was an equally strong sense that the health and safety effects associated with the structure, organisation and pace of work in the terminals were missed by the systems in place for monitoring health and safety performance. Key points emerged from a detailed analysis of the health and safety experiences of workers globally.

In relation to safety:

  • 70 per cent of the respondents to the survey felt their safety was at high risk
  • 40 per cent felt these risks were ineffectively managed
  • one third reported they had experienced some kind of injury at work in the previous year.

In relation to health:

  • 60 per cent of respondents felt they were at high risk of experiencing work-related harm to their health
  • 48 per cent felt these risks were ineffectively managed
  • levels of respondents reporting stress, mental fatigue and work-related illnesses were especially high (60 per cent, 65 per cent and 41 per cent respectively).

Overall, the survey findings showed that:

  • workers experience a higher incidence of harm to their health and safety than recorded by company reporting procedures
  • many of the more commonly experienced effects of the work involved in terminal operations on workers’ health were not addressed adequately by the arrangements for health and safety management
  • welfare arrangements did not adequately provide for workers’ needs.

Both the survey and interviews with workers and their representatives indicate that, in terminals in more advanced economies – where both regulatory requirements and trade union workplace organisation were better developed – consultative arrangements required by law were generally in place, but arrangements seldom went beyond such requirements. The survey findings were corroborated by data from interviews in which worker participants expressed concerns about their safety, health and welfare, and suggested that arrangements for managing health and safety at their workplaces only partially addressed their concerns.



In short, the survey of workers’ experiences of arrangements for managing their health, safety and welfare portrayed a rather different perception of the effectiveness of these arrangements to that presented by both corporate and terminal-level managers and advisers with responsibility for OHS. The dominant approaches to health and safety management used by the container terminal companies studied were elaborate, behaviourally focused occupational safety management systems in which there was only limited worker involvement or feedback loops. These are incomplete models, even in terms of addressing routine injury, but are particularly so in that they allow only low engagement with preventive occupational health matters and are relatively unresponsive to the consequences of significant changes in technology and work organisation in this respect. As well as the influence of the business model discussed in the following section, these approaches also contribute to a major disconnect/cognitive dissonance observed between management and worker perceptions concerning the effectiveness of actions on OHS.

This said, it is clear that, in at least some of the terminal operating organisations studied, there is evidence of awareness in corporate OHS advice and governance of the limited value of prevention strategies based solely on the reduction of routine injuries, and more attention being paid to strategies that take account, for example, of low-frequency, high-impact incidents and integrated prevention strategies included in design/engineering, maintenance, risk assessment, TARPs (trigger action response plans) and so on. These are relatively recent and, as yet, incomplete initiatives, and they would benefit from further development and greater engagement with systems for worker representation and preventive occupational health measures, both of which, as previously pointed out, are underdeveloped in most terminals and for which support from corporate rhetoric concerning the focus on ‘zero harm’ does not appear especially helpful.

While OHS arrangements in the terminals were significantly influenced by the national economic and regulatory contexts in which they were situated, the practice of regulatory inspection was itself either underdeveloped (significantly so in poorer countries in the study) or suggested by terminal workers to be less in evidence than previously in some richer countries in the study. This suggestion, which was to a large extent substantiated in interviews with regulatory agency personnel as well as by national enforcement data, is of some concern. Up to the present time, such inspection had clearly been an important part of the influence on compliance with national OHS requirements in the terminals situated in these countries. Its reduction in relation to these workplaces, where substantial and serious OHS risks still exist, is disturbing.


What does the research mean?

The conclusion from the analysis indicates that even where the conditions of context were found to be at their most conducive, there remains significant scope for improvement, particularly in relation to the management of workers’ health and welfare, alongside their safety, and the more effective involvement of workers and their representatives in the arrangements in place to achieve this. In these scenarios, both company strategies for OHS governance and the surveillance of the ensuing arrangements for their delivery need to continue to be a priority in the support of safe and healthy work for all terminal workers. Business efficiencies associated with container terminal operation mean that success in this highly competitive industry is determined by the speed and cost-efficiencies associated with cargo handling and throughput at terminals that, in turn, drive trends both in operational efficiency (including automation, manning levels, shift patterns and so on) and in corporate preferences for contracting-out labour. From the results of the survey of workers’ OHS experiences, it seems clear that it was the consequences of these practices which lay at the heart of both the dissonance between the workers’ experiences and managers’ perceptions of the effectiveness of their health and safety arrangements, as well as differences observed in OHS experiences in terminals located in different parts of the world.

Contexts and recommendations


Whether companies are global or national, their corporate strategies on health, safety and welfare in the container terminals for which they are responsible are implemented in very different national contexts. These contexts moderate both the nature and operation of corporate approaches. This is particularly so in relation to the effects of wider economic, regulatory and labour relations systems on the approaches taken by terminal operating companies to managing safety, health and welfare, and workers’ consequent experiences of those approaches and their outcomes.[1]

The important message the research delivers demonstrates the impact of context. It suggests that without strong and effectively enforced regulation, and economic and labour relations allowing workers an effective voice, terminal operating companies will tend to favour productivity over the effective management of safety and, in particular, health and welfare. These operators, especially those working at a global level, have the capacity to put effective OHS strategies in place, but they generally do so only when the contexts in which their business units are situated oblige them to[2].



[2] Frick K. Worker influence on voluntary OHS management systems – a review of its ends and means. Safety Science 2011; 49 (7): 974–987

[3] Weil D. The fissured workplace: why work became so bad for so many and what can be done to improve it. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2014; Short J L and Toffel M W. Making self-regulation more than merely symbolic: the critical role of the legal environment. Administrative Science Quarterly 2010; 55 (3): 361–396.

[4] Locke R, Rissing B and Timea P. Complements or substitutes? Private codes, state regulation and the enforcement of labour standards in global supply chains. British Journal of Industrial Relations 2013; 51 (3): 519–552

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Ivan Williams

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