| Written by Mark Buzinkay

A container handling equipment (CHE) operator, also known as a stevedore or dockworker, is the backbone of global shipping and logistics. International trade is efficient and effective because of their work, though it's often challenging and physically demanding. In this article, we talk about their daily responsibilities, skills needed, safety considerations, and the exciting things they do.
CHE Operator

No video selected

Select a video type in the sidebar.

CHE Operators

There are hundreds of thousands of stevedores working worldwide. In 2022, more than 62,000 workers in the US moved containers at container terminals. A CHE operator's job is to load and unload cargo containers from ships. It takes precision and skill, because cranes and straddle carriers are involved. The operatives must be adept at handling these big machines, lifting containers off ships and placing them on docks. They need technical expertise but also an acute awareness of safety protocols (see also Terminal Tracker module Operator Safety).

Beyond the docks, these operatives are responsible for transporting containers within the terminal. They use various vehicles, such as reach stackers and forklifts, to move containers from the ship to storage areas or onto trucks and trains for onward transportation. This part of the job requires a strong understanding of the layout of the terminal and efficient route planning to ensure that containers reach their designated spots without delay.

Jake is a quay crane operator, shuttle carrier and terminal tractors driver: "I basically move the containers from within the stacks up to an inspection area, border control, or I can bring them to be loaded onto rail or generally just move them around within the terminal. They might have to go to quayside or back and forth. Those jobs get delegated to me through control, call us up on the radio, or I've got a screen inside here which gets jobs sent out to me (see also Terminal Tracker module Job Promote). I then accept the job and then move the containers to where they need to go. The training is quite extensive; I've had weeks of training for the terminal tractors and some more for the shuttle carriers. The quay crane needs obviously the most amount of training that can take up to a couple of months."

The storage and stacking of containers is another critical aspect of their work. Container terminal operatives must strategically stack containers in the storage yard, optimizing space while ensuring each container is accessible and safely placed. This task calls for an intricate understanding of the weight and size of different containers and the best methods to stack them securely.

Nicky, a quay crane operator, recounts her role: "It's a job that involves moving containers from ships to the shore, or from the shore to the ships. It's a challenge every day. It involves a lot of hand-eye coordination and precision driving, but it's a job I've always wanted to do. So basically, to pick up a container, you trolley backwards, hoist down using the levers and collect the container. You know that you have collected it by the lights on the spreader. You obviously need to get into four small pockets on top of the container with the four small pins that are on top of the spreader. You pick up the container, then take it to the lashing platform and then you can safely load it onto the ship" (check out the Operator Access and Operator Login Terminal Tracker modules).

A lesser-known but equally important responsibility of container terminal operatives is checking and documentation. They play a crucial role in ensuring the integrity of cargo by checking the condition of containers and verifying that the cargo matches the shipping manifests. Any discrepancies must be documented and reported, making attention to detail a crucial skill for these workers.

Effective coordination and communication are vital in a container terminal. Operatives must work closely with the ship's crew, truck drivers, and other terminal staff to ensure smooth operations. This requires not only good communication skills but also the ability to work as part of a team and solve problems efficiently.

Equipment maintenance is another key responsibility (read more about Tyre Management). Regular safety checks and essential maintenance work on the cranes, forklifts, and other machinery are essential to prevent breakdowns and ensure the safety of operations.

Speaking of safety, it is a paramount concern in the container terminal environment. The nature of the job, involving heavy machinery and large cargo, presents significant risks. Adhering to safety protocols and wearing the appropriate gear is non-negotiable for terminal operatives. They must constantly be vigilant to avoid accidents and ensure a safe working environment for themselves and their colleagues.

CHE Operators: The Skills Necessary

The role of a container terminal operative demands a unique set of skills, encompassing both physical attributes and technical prowess, along with cognitive and interpersonal abilities.

Jane, another terminal operative, also operates cranes. "Her" crane is a rail-mounted gantry crane:" They're used for tanking the containers and putting it onto the rail and taking it off the rail and putting it onto the trailers to be moved around the port. Before, I was used to working in an office, but now, it's different because every day is a challenge, every day is different. The most challenging thing for me was changing to shift work. But it also has its benefits. I also work on shuttle carriers. These are machines used to collect the containers from behind the quay cranes that come from the vessels." The physical demands of the job are significant. Operatives are often required to engage in tasks that involve lifting, moving, and operating heavy equipment. This requires not only strength but also stamina and endurance. The ability to maintain a high level of physical activity over extended periods is crucial, especially when working in shifts that can span several hours. Physical fitness also plays a key role in ensuring the safety of the operatives and their colleagues, as fatigue can lead to accidents in such a high-risk environment.

Elisa, a reach stacker operator, has worked for years at a container terminal: "I operate a reach stacker and also a terminal tractor. With the tractor, I grab containers from the railway to the automatic cranes, and on the reach stacker, I load trailers with containers. My favourite bit of the job is operating the machinery." For her, precision is key in handling and recording cargo. In general, operatives must ensure that the cargo is handled accurately in accordance with the manifests and shipping instructions. You need to pay close attention to details so you don't end up with costly mistakes like misplacement or damage. The meticulous tracking and inventory management of cargo details is also essential in logistics. It's a highly collaborative job, so operatives have to work with other professionals like ship crews, truck drivers, and terminal staff.

Dave, a lead lasher, is also a trainer: "My job is one of the more physical jobs in the port. Basically, the first thing that we have to do is that we need to find the boxes which are being discharged at this port, and then we have to attach the lashing bars, which are a little bit heavy, and we make sure that the container is ready for the crane to discharge that box. We also set it up ready for the other boxes to come back on." Given the outdoor of the job and the variability of shipping schedules, flexibility is a key attribute for a container terminal operative. They must be able to work effectively in a variety of weather conditions, from intense heat to rain and cold. Adapting to changing schedules, including irregular hours and shift work, is also part of the job. This adaptability not only helps in maintaining personal effectiveness but also ensures that the operative can respond to the dynamic needs of the terminal operations.

For Dave, the dynamic nature of terminal operations means that operatives frequently encounter unforeseen challenges. These could range from equipment malfunctions to logistical issues such as delays or errors in cargo documentation. The ability to think on one's feet, assess situations quickly, and come up with effective solutions is the key. This skill is in minimizing downtime and maintaining the flow of operations. Dave went to other ports to be trained as a lead lasher, but also how to be a trainer to teach others using other tools that come in handy at a container terminal.



An interesting aspect of their role is the global impact of their work. CHE operators handle goods that are shipped worldwide, making them key players in the international trade network. The increasing integration of technology and automation in terminal operations, such as the use of automated guided vehicles and advanced crane operation systems, is also transforming the way terminals operate, adding an exciting technological dimension to their work. In summary, the role of a container terminal operative is multifaceted and vital. From the precise operation of heavy machinery to the strategic stacking of containers and meticulous documentation, their work ensures the smooth and efficient flow of goods across the globe. Their contribution, though often behind the scenes, is essential in keeping the wheels of global trade turning.

PDS and Port Automation Whitepaper Full Text online

Dive deeper into one of our core topics: Smart Port