Port changes help it handle more steel


November 09, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

When longshoremen at North Locust Point Marine Terminal started loading cargo onto a ship called the Diamond yesterday morning, there were enough steel tubes on the docks to build a pipeline 20 miles long.

Stacked in bundles of 20 tubes, the steel lay about the terminal like a giant's cordwood. For weeks, it has been arriving from a U.S. Steel mill in Ohio via 159 CSX rail cars.

Anthony Chiarello, assistant vice president of Universal Maritime Service Corp., expects many more miles of steel to move through Baltimore in the coming months, in large part because of the high productivity his crews have achieved.

Their success, combined with competitive rail rates to the port, has allowed Universal, the stevedoring company in charge of the loading, to attract to Baltimore thousands of tons of steel that had been moving through the port of Philadelphia.

It will take 60 longshoremen working three or four days to load all the pipes on the Diamond. That's a tremendous amount of work to service one ship, given industry trends. Because of automated cargo handling techniques, many ships now stay in port hours rather than days.

The Diamond is not lingering in Baltimore because the longshoremen here are slow. Steel simply takes a lot longer to load aboard a ship than containers or coal. That means the economic benefit -- in jobs and business revenue -- of a steel ship's call is much greater than that of a containership or a bulk cargo ship.

On the Diamond, the two gangs loading the ship were together moving an average of about 100 tons of steel per hour, or almost twice the rate at Mobile, Ala., a main U.S. port for steel, Mr. Chiarello said.

Bob Gary, 53, a member of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, said, "This is the best thing I've seen around here in 30 years. We need more ships like this."

The productivity of a worker is largely dependent on the tools provided by the employer. Universal and the Maryland Port Administration have made substantial investments to make the steel operations at Locust Point more effective.

Universal paid about $750,000 to buy or modify equipment for handling steel. The state spent about $380,000 to move an old container crane from Dundalk Marine Terminal to Locust Point this year. The crane's hoist can rise only 67 feet above the level of the dock. That's too low to fit over a modern ship with five tiers of containers stacked on the deck. But it's great for handling steel pipes and coils.

Two cranes were in use yesterday -- the container crane and one of the five cranes built into the ship's deck. While the ship's crane could lift only about four pipes at a time, the container crane working next to it was picking up 40-ton bundles of 20 pipes at a time.

Because each crane is staffed by a similar size gang of workers, the longshoremen using the container crane were about five times as productive as their colleagues working just as hard a few feet away.

Higher productivity is a two-edged sword, from the perspective of the longshoremen. Using a container crane to move steel "knocks a lot of men out of work," Mr. Gary said.

But those productivity gains from the container crane and other specialized cargo-handling equipment used by Universal are what made it possible to keep costs low enough to entice U.S. Steel to Baltimore. So without the container crane, it is probable that none of the longshoremen would have been loading steel on the Diamond yesterday.

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