| Written by Constance Stickler

It is a long way from the ports of the past, in which ships often had to stay longer than they were at sea, and a large number of workers loaded the goods onto the vessels or discharged the cargo with arduous physical exertion. 

New technologies have alleviated or completely taken over many of these activities. Traditional jobs died out, and new ones appeared. But what always remains is the pride that these people rightly have in their work, which does nothing less than keep global trade going. Whoever continues to do the hard work in an often harsh environment today also deserves technological solutions that take their safety into account.

Container Terminal Jobs

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Working With Giants

Anyone who visits a port for the first time is spellbound: practically everything in the port takes on gigantic proportions. Since ships are getting bigger and larger and previously unimaginable quantities of containers are being transported worldwide, the shore's infrastructure must also follow suit. So, what do you have to deal with in container terminal jobs?

The ship-to-shore (STS) container cranes are undoubtedly the most impressive and visible from afar. Their outreach has reached spans of 54-65 meters in the ultra post-Panamax era. The lifting height is over 40 meters, and the operator sits even slightly higher. It's like looking from the roof of a 12-story building.

Rail-mounted gantry (RMG) and Rubber Tire Gantry (RTG) cranes are smaller but (to a limited extent) mobile. Their width can be up to over 32m.

Then, there are a variety of amazingly manoeuvrable, huge vehicles: straddle carriers, reach stackers, side and top handlers, forklifts, different specialised material and cargo handlers, and terminal tractors.

The containers themselves are also impressive: not exactly small individually, up to six are usually stacked on each other. This results in a total height of approximately 15.5 meters. Then there is the weight; the empty container already weighs 2.3 (20ft) or 3.9 (40ft) tons. The weight can be up to 28 (20ft) or 27.7 (40ft) tonnes when loaded (learn more about container terminal operations).

It takes a lot of people to transport the containers and, therefore, the goods from the ship to the yard and beyond, but only some of them actually "meet the containers personally". Who are they, and what risks are they exposed to?


Most Dangerous Container Terminal Jobs

The most dangerous jobs at the container terminal are those that involve working in or in close proximity to heavy machinery and equipment and potentially handling hazardous materials. Workers considered to be at higher risk include:

Crane Operators

Operating a crane to move containers between ships and the quay or in the yard involves working at great heights and with heavy loads in a dynamic environment. There is a risk of accidents such as collisions, equipment malfunctions and falls from great heights.

Container Handling Equipment (CHE) Operators

Transporting and stacking containers requires skill and much caution to avoid incidents such as tipping over and collisions. Here, too, a fall while climbing into or out of the higher cab can result in considerable damage. Drivers work in a limited space, must avoid obstacles and interact with other devices and actors.

(External) Truck Drivers

They have to learn to deal with pretty much the same risks as the CHE operators. However, while internal drivers know the site well, it is often tricky for external operators to find their way around a (still) unfamiliar terminal.

Yard Worker

Shipyard workers who have to carry out necessary work on-site are exposed to the risk of getting caught in the blind spots of large vehicles and being overlooked. In addition, container yards are not perfectly asphalted highways, so slipping, stumbling and falling on uneven surfaces becomes dangerous. They are also directly exposed to adverse weather conditions.

Container Inspectors

They also run the risk of being overlooked if the inspection cannot take place in a specially designed area. When inspectors check for container damage, leaks or hazardous substances, they are exposed to potential health and safety risks. These include, for example, dangerous substances, sharp edges of damaged containers or unstable loads in the cargo.

(Maintenance) Technicians

If a vehicle breaks down within the container yard and cannot be moved, technicians must perform the necessary repair work outside the designated and equipped areas. They also have to contend with cramped spaces and limited visibility near container piles and large machines.



Consequences of Accidents

The consequences of accidents for those affected and their relatives are often severe:

  • (Persistent) pain
  • Loss of limbs
  • Death
  • Loss of work
  • Loss of income
  • Loss of breadwinner
  • Low morale of colleagues

Accidents also have unpleasant consequences for employers:

  • Operation disruption
  • Administrative work
  • Compensation for the individual
  • Compensation for the cargo owner
  • Compensation for the carrier
  • Repair costs
  • Increased insurance instalments
  • Damaged reputation


Where to start for more safety?

There are many points where you can start in order to mitigate the effects of accidents or prevent them altogether. The first step is to give the topic the importance it deserves. So, you name a person or an entire team responsible for evaluating sources of danger, creating safety protocols and training, and ensuring compliance with them.

Safety personnel

Among all the container terminal jobs, there is one where all efforts to increase security come together: the safety officer.

This position has various responsibilities. For example, advising management on all safety issues and maintaining relationships with relevant authorities. Or assisting with the preparation of safety procedures and policies.

Safety officers also conduct regular inspections or approve them if other bodies carry them out. Another task is to record defects that they notice or that are reported to them.

If an accident happens, safety officers coordinate the investigations, analyse and record them, and make recommendations.

Safety Committee

Depending on the size of the port, the safety officer may also have a team behind him. Setting up a safety committee consisting of representatives from various departments is also recommended. In this way, the expertise of the individual people can be used, and it also promotes acceptance of the measures taken together among the workforce.

Safety handbook

Safety manuals are a central tool for promoting safety in the workplace. Regardless of whether it is in printed form or can be accessed digitally at any time, it encourages safety culture by formulating practices in a concise, easy-to-understand manner. It also supports the onboarding process for new employees.

Safety training

When working at the container terminal, you typically complete extensive training programs to familiarise yourself with safety processes, equipment operations, and emergency protocols. This training should always be up-to-date and include the knowledge gained from dealing with on-site accidents.

Depending on whether you perform one of the more dangerous container terminal jobs, you may also need to obtain certifications or licenses to operate heavy machinery such as cranes, forklifts, or reach stackers.

Emergency Preparedness

Because work at the port is so dangerous in many ways, the crew is trained to respond quickly and effectively to a variety of incidents. There are emergency plans and drills for fires, explosions, hazardous chemical leaks, and all types of medical emergencies. All employees must be so familiar with the area that they can find a suitable evacuation route anytime, even under the severe stress of an emergency.


The Swiss Cheese Safety Model

The Swiss Cheese Safety Model (created by James T. Reason, University of Manchester in 1990) is used in risk analysis and risk management in many industries, such as aviation safety and healthcare, but also as a principle behind layered security, as used in computer systems.

It illustrates how accidents can occur in complex systems despite multiple levels. The cheese slices each represent a level of defence, with the holes representing weaknesses or vulnerabilities. An accident can happen if the holes are found in multiple levels, but the measures are in place at least on one level.

The Swiss Cheese Model illustrates the importance of multiple levels of protection in order to reduce the likelihood of accidents and effectively mitigate risks. Various strategies can be used to reduce risks. First, all levels must be checked for their weak points. If these can be remedied, individual or multiple levels can be strengthened, for example, by releasing new resources.

Of course, introducing new measures can also increase the number of levels. It may make sense to introduce redundancies here that can still prevent an accident if one level fails.

With this approach, it is crucial to understand precisely how the incident occurred and where the security measures failed after each near-miss or incident. This knowledge is then used to improve the individual levels or introduce a new level.

The UN Global Compact reports around 2 million deaths and a further 374 million non-fatal occupational accidents. Here, too, gaps at different levels are mentioned, such as loopholes in governance, inadequate legal frameworks, insufficient knowledge and resources, unsustainable business practices and the need for a culture of prevention at the national and company levels. Governments and companies are required to do their part to ensure the safety of their citizens and employees (1).


Automated Solutions for More Safety

The increasing use of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, implemented primarily to increase efficiency and productivity, also positively impacts employees' safety, health and physical well-being. 

Matthew Williamson, Senior Project Engineer with Identec Solutions' Professional Services, points out the benefits of automated solutions regarding workplace safety: "Automation of container terminal processes can provide a number of benefits to improve worker safety beyond the obvious efficiency improvements. Harnessing available technology creates safer working environments for those most at risk in a container terminal."

One of them is Real-time location systems (RTLS). RTLS tracks the whereabouts of assets, vehicles and people; sensors attached to equipment monitor the condition and performance of machines, and clear interfaces inform and warn personnel about all important events.

Below, we take a closer look at some of these solutions:

Collision Avoidance Systems

As we are used to with newer cars, vehicles at the port also have sensors, cameras and radar to detect obstacles and other vehicles in real-time. Depending on the settings, warnings can be triggered, or machines can be stopped automatically to avoid collisions.

Shock Sensors

And if there is a collision? Then, the damage has already occurred, but it is often still possible to limit the damage. For example, if liquids leak and lead to contamination of the container and slot in the yard, water would penetrate through the resulting holes in the container. It sounds unbelievable, but some collisions are missed in the moment's heat - or they go deliberately unreported. Or the driver cannot report the accident because, for example, he is injured.

A shock sensor can help by automatically sending a message to the system when a specific threshold value is exceeded. Then, the process defined in the event of collisions can be started immediately, and, at best, cargo can be saved, or at least something worse can be prevented, especially with regard to dangerous goods. Learn more about this important Shock Management function.

Remote Monitoring and Control Systems

Remote monitoring systems enable supervisors and operators to monitor terminal operations from a centralised location using cameras, sensors, and data analytics. These systems allow for early detection of safety hazards or equipment malfunctions, enabling proactive intervention to prevent accidents.

Predictive Maintenance

Regular inspection and maintenance of devices and machine are essential for safe operation. Mechanical problems can be identified and corrected immediately. With the help of data automatically collected by telematic systems, so-called preventive maintenance can be implemented. This means that the maintenance does not only happen when, for example, the planned date or the number of kilometres indicates this, but rather as soon as one of the parameters classified as relevant deviates from the target range. Early detection of potential problems helps reduce the risk of accidents due to breakdowns or equipment malfunctions.

We can already see that it's all about prevention. Let's now look closer at two solutions: the check before putting a vehicle into operation and the access authorisation for a vehicle, both automated and in real-time.

We can already see that prevention is the order of the day. Let's now take a closer look at two solutions: the check before putting a vehicle into operation and the access authorisation for a vehicle, both automated and in real-time.


An inspection before every start-up - is that feasible?

And whether that is possible. Of course, it's not an extensive inspection with all the bells and whistles, but checking the most important and obvious things is definitely doable.

One is often surprised at how much a check that takes just a few minutes can bring. Imagine your employee discovering a defect that is quite quickly repaired but, if not discovered, causes damage amounting to several thousand dollars. The investment of a few minutes was worth it, wasn't it?

So, what exactly is a pre-operational safety check (POSC)? A POSC, also called a pre-operational inspection or pre-start check, is a process in which a previously defined checklist of safety-relevant points is passed and ticked off. It is performed before using a device or starting a vehicle to ensure that it is in proper working condition and can be operated safely.

The purpose behind it is to identify and, if necessary, correct potential dangers, defects or malfunctions before commissioning that could affect safety or performance during operation. Possible points that need to be checked include examining tyres or chains, testing brakes and lights, and determining whether oil stains are under the vehicle.

Most terminals provide employees with checklists or procedures to follow during security screening. This ensures that all critical elements are taken into account systematically and consistently.

The test results must be documented, and all defects must be reported immediately. This is also because carrying out a POSC is required by laws, regulations or industry standards. If the checks are not carried out or their execution cannot be proven, there is a risk of legal obligations, fines or penalties.

Modern automated systems use easy-to-use interfaces for entering test results and specifying any resulting requirements. It can also be defined as whether it is a minor or essential error, which has different consequences. It is important to be aware of the minor error, but it has no immediate consequences. On the other hand, an essential error brings things to a halt, for example, because commissioning is too dangerous for the driver, or an immediate repair is vital if you don't want to risk significant damage.

Another aspect is the daily routine. If the checklist always looks the same, you risk constantly checking it out of habit. In our Operator Safety solution, the confirmation buttons are displayed randomly, requiring more attention.


Authorised operators only

Moving vehicles, no matter what size, is a trustworthy job. It's not for nothing that you have to get a driver's license. The larger and heavier the vehicle, the riskier the operation. That's why a regular driver's license is not enough; additional certifications and licenses are required.

Only those who have all these certificates of competency should operate such equipment. To ensure this, the driver must provide identification.

This is usually done digitally but still requires tedious logins that often waste unnecessary time. A much more efficient method is systems based on authentication cards or tags, such as our Operator Login, in which the data is recorded, and the user is automatically logged in as soon as the card is near a reading device. Like modern car keys no longer need to be inserted and turned around; they just need to be in the car.

How often do you forget to log out? With this solution, that can't happen. As soon as the card reaches a certain distance from the card reader, the operator is automatically logged out. Based on the login status, you can reliably determine whether the driver is in the vehicle—important information, especially in emergencies.

If the vehicle is equipped with a position detection system (PDS) and the employee is logged in, you will know in real time which driver is where in the terminal.

However, unlike in a car, using the card guarantees that the person can drive. This information is stored in the terminal's user data, which is queried automatically every time you log in. Only when it gives the green light can the vehicle be started.

Our Operator Access module takes on precisely this task by querying the driver's authorisation and reporting the positive answer back to the vehicle. Or not if it isn't available.

It also allows various driver stats reports by a driver within a selected timeframe. This information is essential, among other things, for checking and complying with legally required working hours and breaks. Operating heavy machinery for long periods without breaks risks fatigue, reduced alertness and impaired judgment. The risk of accidents and injuries increases. Failure to comply with the prescribed times may also result in penalties or fines for the terminal.



Container Terminal Jobs Safety Rules

  • Attending safety instructions before working at the terminal is mandatory.
  • Know evacuation plans, including designated assembly areas, evacuation routes, and emergency exits.
  • All personnel must wear personal protective equipment (helmet, vest and safety shoes) inside the terminal.
  • External drivers are required to remain in their vehicles while at the terminal. No walking is allowed.
  • Observe traffic rules and signage at all times.
  • Come to a complete stop at all posted and painted stop signs.
  • Keep your seatbelt fastened when inside the vehicle and driving.
  • Obey speed limits (e.g. 10 mph at quayside, 15mph at main road).
  • No overtaking.
  • Don't drive behind a top handler working in container stack/rows or any other blind spots.
  • Maintain a safe distance from other vehicles, no tailgating.
  • Do not use cell phones while driving.
  • Avoid all distractions during work.
  • All vehicles must park in the designated areas and reverse parking.
  • Drugs and alcohol are forbidden at the entire terminal.
  • Never walk or drive under a lifted load.
  • Keep away from working terminal equipment and container stacking area.
  • Report any defects, hazards, accidents, or injuries to the terminal operator immediately.



Work at the port has changed a lot. Labour-intensive manual work is largely highly mechanised processes made possible by new technology. However, container terminal jobs still involve many risks, which is why continuous development of procedures and processes is necessary. New technologies, in particular, require flexible approaches that can be easily achieved using automated solutions. Many of the IoT tools used to increase efficiency also positively affect employee safety.

Container Terminal Safety Whitepaper Full Text online

Delve deeper into one of our core topics: Port Automation


(1) https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/safety-andhealth

Note: This article was updated on the 15th of May 2024



Conny Stickler, Marketing Manager Logistics

Constance Stickler holds a master's degree in political science, German language and history. She spent most of her professional career as a project and marketing manager in different industries. Her passion is usability, and she's captivated by the potential of today's digital tools. They seem to unlock endless possibilities, each one more intriguing than the last. Constance writes about automation, sustainability and safety in maritime logistics.

Find here a selection of her articles