By Keith Norbury

Breakbulk makes up a tiny fraction of the tonnage handled at Canadian ports. At Port Metro Vancouver, for example, breakbulk accounted for just 1.3 per cent of the Port’s total cargo volume of 122.5 million tonnes in 2011.

But that small proportion belies breakbulk’s significance as a job-creator on the waterfront. Among the major cargo types, it is by far the most labour-intensive. A 2009 report commissioned for the Port of Seattle concluded that breakbulk creates 4.2 jobs for every 1,000 tonnes of cargo. That is 10 times as many jobs as for international containerized cargo, said the report, prepared by Martin Associates, economic consultants, of Lancaster, Pa. Handling of grain, at 0.09 jobs per 1,000 tonnes, petroleum (0.22 jobs), and domestic cargo (0.7 jobs) are also far less labour-intensive that breakbulk handling, the report concluded.

“I wouldn’t dispute that,” said John Beckett, Vice-President of Training, Safety and Recruitment with the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA). “But I would say the work is different. The work on a container terminal consists of lashing and unlashing the containers and putting cones or locking devices in the corner of the containers versus slinging, placing blocks, etc.” Rob Ashton, First Vice-President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Canada, concurred. He noted that “every lift is different” when it comes to breakbulk or project cargo, such as trains that longshore workers handled for the West Coast Express transit line. “So for every single lift, our operators, our crane operators, our labourers, have to know balance points,” Mr. Ashton said. “And our foremen have to know exactly what they’re doing.”

Handling breakbulk and project cargo also requires a defter touch. Pulp, for example, is extremely fragile, Mr. Beckett said. Each bundle also weighs a tonne. “They don’t want it damaged and they don’t want it dirty. It’s designed to be lifted twice: once into the hold and once out,” Mr. Beckett said. “And it’s got to be stacked a certain way. Then there are air bags that are used to make sure that it’s stacked in the hold so that it doesn’t move during the voyage.”

Steel is also fragile – and slippery. “A slight ding means the pipe’s now ruined,” he said. And pipe, which can be round or square, is only one form of steel. It also comes in coils, rebar, and flat plate – each requiring different handling techniques. “There are different configurations in the hold,” Mr. Beckett said. “There are different ways of getting it out. Different dangers.”

Handling breakbulk also involves the use of blockage or dunning to secure the load. Training in dunnage involves not only learning how to place and remove the material but also to be aware of its hazards. “Obviously when you’re putting in loads of lumber, dunnage becomes an issue,” Mr. Beckett said. “When you’re unloading steel, dunnage is an issue because then you’ve got a lot of dunnage in the hold. You have to get rid of the dunnage. And it can fall on you and hurt you badly.” Dunnage is generally made of dense wood, typically from the tropics, and has no other use, not even for firewood. Because it originates from a foreign locale, it is treated as semi-hazardous material and has to be kept out of landfills, he said. “It’s not that somebody can take it home and use it for firewood. It is controlled,” he said, noting that it is placed in special bins on the waterfront from where it is hauled away for proper disposal.

Ron Anderson, CEO of Squamish Terminals, about 32 nautical miles north of Vancouver, said his employees don’t spend much time in the holds of ships. But they do hook up cargo and they operate cranes at Squamish, which specializes in handling breakbulk such as wood pulp and lumber. “It’s not all uniform sizes because it’s different types of lumber and pulp from different mills.” he said. “It’s a variety of sizes instead of just a uniform container.”

A posting for new trainees on BCMEA’s website notes that longshore work is divided into three basic sectors: container, bulk and breakbulk. “Some workers prefer working at container terminals, while other prefer bulk or break bulk sites,” the notice states. “Although workers are not prohibited from training in multiple sectors, it is more efficient for workers to focus on training in skills required in their preferred sector.”

Mr. Beckett, Mr. Ashton and Mr. Anderson all agree that handling breakbulk requires the most specialized, varied and demanding skill set of the three main sectors. “Absolutely,” Mr. Beckett said. “Breakbulk product covers varying degrees of sizes and shapes. It has to be placed efficiently in the hold, with sufficient protection. It has to be done quickly and safely, and placed properly. It’s a skill. Not everybody can do that.”