Sheri Laekeman: Seaway automation a public safety concern

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Activist blog by Sheri Laeckeman

By Sheri Laekeman

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a vital link to the rest of the world for much of the Canadian economy.

More than 37 million tonnes of cargo last year passed through the waterway’s locks along the Welland Canal and the St. Lawrence River. Add to that more than 10,000 pleasure craft moving through the Seaway, and you begin to see how important the system is to the Canadian fabric.

While the Seaway, in its modern form, has only been around since 1959 (with several upgrades since), these waters have been plied for more than two centuries as a route to foreign markets for all that Canada has to offer the world.

Most of the upgrades over the years have helped to make the Seaway more efficient and able to handle ever-bigger and technologically advanced ships, ensuring the Seaway remained a vital link between much of the Canadian economy and the rest of the world.

The Seaway’s most recent upgrade, however, is cause for concern.

The plan is to automate all 15 locks along the Seaway, creating hands-free mooring – in which no people are required to work the locks themselves. Instead, vacuum pads operated remotely would be used to secure ships in place as they come into a lock, rather than the traditional wire or rope mooring lines.

Unifor is not convinced that these plans, approved by the federal government in April, are in the best interest of the neighbouring communities, or the shipping industry.

The retrofit has already begun at Lock 3 in Welland, with the work to be completed by the end of the shipping season. All locks along the seaway are expected to be retrofitted by 2018.

Having no personnel at the dock, however, leaves the ships vulnerable to a mechanical failure and the real possibility of an environmental disaster.

That’s because the workers at the locks do much more than just secure ships in place with ropes and wires. They are the eyes and ears that keep watch for a potential crash, ready and able to act fast when needed.

It is not unusual for a ship’s engines to cut out at the slow speeds often needed to maneuver into a lock. These are big vessels, weighing several tonnes themselves, with thousands more tonnes of cargo onboard. When their engines cut, their momentum keeps them moving.

These big ships don’t have brakes, after all.

What they do have, for the time being, are trained professionals on site who can use their wires and ropes to safely secure a ship whose engines have cut out.

Left to their own, such a ship could do serious damage to the locks, which would tie up all the ships and cargo behind it and do serious economic harm to communities across Canada that rely on their goods getting to market.

More than that, the cargo of these ships could be spilled in a crash, raising the risk of serious environmental damage to the surrounding community, and downstream waterways.

Vacuum pads, operated remotely away from the lock, cannot replace the advantage of having skilled workers right at the lock who can see what needs to be done with a ship whose engine has cut, and have the skills and equipment needed to handle the situation.

Automation can be a good thing. It can make the Seaway safer and more efficient. But efficiency should never be put ahead of safety. That’s not good for the shipping industry or the Canadian economy, which both rely on the Seaway remaining accident-free.

And it’s not good for the communities along the Seaway, who rely on it for good jobs and to ensure that the often-dangerous cargo passing through the locks does so without incident.

  That’s why Unifor is calling for minimum staffing levels to be maintained at each lock after conversion to hand-free mooring. Only by having eyes and skilled hands at each lock can we ensure the safety of both the Seaway and the communities through which it flows.

 Sheri Laekeman is President of Unifor Local 4212, which represents workers along the Welland Canal.