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Working in Terminals During the Pandemic 2020-09-10

The awareness of establishing and enforcing workplace health and safety practices has increased exponentially in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak, and it has become an acknowledged reality that this long-drawn pandemic has globally disrupted and redefined the work environment and work processes. Much of today’s port & terminal operations still require on-the ground personnel to manage and operate their operations control room, operate yard & berth equipment. While some ports and terminals may have responded well to the new normal, many are in fact still coming to terms with the challenges with social distancing and manpower resource rostering for alternating split work teams. Therefore, port & terminal operators will now have to more forcefully pursue measures to reengineer their operations by looking deeper into digitalisation of their operations.

The current situation favours Terminal Operating Systems (TOS) that break away from traditional on-site, client/server installations, instead to capitalise on web-based technology. By hosting a cloud-based TOS that is accessible via browsers on laptops and mobile devices, greater workforce mobility and infrastructure resilience can be achieved.

The New Normal of Manpower in Terminal Operations
While there are increasing evidence of automation of port operations to overcome reliance on manual operations, the technology for full automonous vehicles/equipment, and the infrastructural costs involved may still put it out of reach for many ports. Hence undeniably manual labour is still a significant factor to terminals operations, from operating container handling equipment and driving trucks, to physically removing cargo from containers.

For such skill sets that require human resources to be physically on-site, a dynamic system for rostering of personnel would be very useful. Such a system would consider staff’s qualification, availability and previous rostering cycle to equitably distribute the terminal’s expected workload among employees. Teams can be setup so that the same people work in the same shifts on a regular basis, minimizing interaction between those who belong to other teams. In addition, terminals can space out break periods so that employees will not need to linger in big groups during meal times.

For the protection of the workforce from Covid-19, terminals should adopt processes that would minimize contact between personnel and possible sources of infection like surfaces prone to human touch. These can range from simple face masks and gloves to full-blown protective gear depending on the situation. Stocks of these items should be managed effectively to enhance employee’s confidence that they are safe in the workplace. Disinfecting terminal equipment cabins should be a routine activity to ensure the safety of drivers and operators working in a closed environment. Likewise, devices like vehicle mounted terminals (VMT) and mobile devices (handheld terminals) should be disinfected before every change of user (shift change or any other occasion).

Technologies are now available to automatically monitor the number people present in a certain area and these can be used to remind employees to maintain a minimum distance from one another. Similar systems can detect when personnel are not wearing safety vests, helmets and even face masks.

Remote Work as a New Normal for Terminals
Given that physical presence is required for the movement of cargo and containers, there is however a segment of the terminal’s workforce that can be empowered to work remotely. These include back office personnel – finance and administration, documentation, billing and even key operational roles like vessel and yard planners.

A cloud-based TOS would fit perfectly in a situation where personnel are forced to work remotely in the interest of maintaining social distancing. TOS functions accessed via browsers practically allow terminal personnel to work anywhere, provided an adequate security setup is in place.
In addition, for terminal operating companies that run multiple sites, personnel that work remotely can be shared across facilities, as they are unhindered by limitations set by physical presence. In this case terminal operators not only realize savings in manpower and other resources, the employees are also spared from having to contend with congestion in public transport and even in the workplace.

Even if the remote workforce is not shared between terminals in a multi-facility setup, personnel from different locations can play the role of backup to each other, resulting in a robust organizational setup where terminals can continue to operate in case the workforce in one site becomes infected.

The path to the post-Covid world will be a prolonged process, which will not be without setbacks or uncertainties along the way. As the industry progresses into the new normal, it needs to go beyond the typical way of operational manpower rostering to adhere to good workplace safety and health practices. The fact is that the future of terminal operating solution is already within reach, and along with it, a new season of modifying human resource and operational policies that may, in the long-run, operate vastly different from what people are typically used to.

An Opinion Piece by Carlo M.


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