Thursday, January 03, 2008

Smooth operator

Crane operator P. Prasanthan uses a high level of concentration and steady hands to do his job

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7 a.m., crane operator P. Prasanthan, 27, climbs 84 steps to reach the 6’ x 10’ glass-paned air-conditioned booth of the Mobile Harbour Crane, which is located at the Rajiv Gandhi Container Terminal of the Cochin Port Trust.

Inside the booth, which is perched at a height of 70 ft., the chair is like what you see in the cockpit of an airplane, with a head-rest, while in front of the arm-rests, there are two joysticks, which are used to control the crane. There is a computer in front, which gives information about any abnormality: if there is a problem with the locking system, or if the container is overweight or the fuel is low.

Prasanthan’s job is simple: to load and unload containers from ships. “You need a sharp eye and good concentration,” he says. “You should also be confident. One mistake can cause a major accident.”

On the mobile crane, there is a spreader (an attachment to the boom), which has locks. At the four corners of the 20 or 40 ft. containers, there are holes. “The spreader is brought close to the container and once the locks fit perfectly into the holes, sensors will confirm this, and it will lock automatically,” says Prasanthan. Once that happens, the container will be lifted and moved from either the ship to the port or vice versa.

Prasanthan, who has been doing this job for the past three years, does three types of weekly shifts. “The morning shift begins at 7 a.m.,” he says. However, he works till 9.30 a.m., and then another operator takes over. Since the job requires a high degree of concentration, all crane operators are allowed to work in short bursts. At noon, Prasanthan resumes work and carries on till 3 p.m. So, in an eight-hour shift, he works for five and a half hours and is allowed a break of two and a half hours.

The afternoon shift is from 3 to 9.30 p.m. while the night shift begins at 9.30 p.m. and ends at 5.30 a.m. As expected, the night shift is the most difficult. “I work till midnight, then I get to rest till 3 a.m. and that is a very difficult time to stay awake,” he says.

This is the case for the 40 crane operators who ensure that the work goes on non-stop day and night. “A crane operator is no longer regarded like a driver,” says Cherian Abraham, 38, Manager-Operations, Indian Gateway Terminal Pvt. Ltd. “He belongs to the supervisory cadre. There is nobody above him to monitor his job. The equipment, as well as completing the work on time, is his responsibility.”

When you walk around the different yards, all you can see are the blue, red, white and green containers, sitting one on top of the other, with the names, Maersk, P&O, Hapag-Lloyd, Evergreen, and Emirates on some of them. Each container, when fully loaded, can weigh up to 30 tons. There are some containers, called reefers, which are refrigerated and the temperature inside can be seen on a panel outside: minus 14 degrees centigrade.

“Perishable goods, like vegetables, are put in these containers,” says Prasanthan. The majority of the imports are raw cashew from Africa. “Then there is metal scrap, clothes, text books, computer parts and even cars. Around eight cars can fit into one 40 ft. container,” says Giby Issac, 30, the yard supervisor.

Issac, like all the men on the yard, is wearing a yellow helmet, specially-made thick-soled black shoes inserted with metal clips, and a shining lemon-green jacket with reflective strips pasted on it. “These jackets are easily visible during the night and the early morning, and in the rainy season,” says Issac.

Since the containers come in different colours, it is difficult, from the top of a crane, to identify a person if he is wearing normal clothes. “But when the workers wear this jacket, the colour is quickly visible,” says Prasanthan. “An operator can notice immediately if somebody is moving towards a dangerous place. He can stop the crane and ask the man to move away.”

The reason why it is compulsory to wear helmets is that there is always a chance that a nut can get loose from a crane and fall on the head. As for safety shoes, Cherian Abraham says that when you walk on board a ship, you can hit a hard edge, and if you are wearing soft shoes, you can break your toes. “Our company, which is a part of DP World, Dubai, is spending a lot of money on safety measures,” he says. “You cannot replace a human life, so it is better to take precautions.”

Meanwhile, down on the ground, a fierce wind is blowing, as the loading gets completed on the container ship, Maersk Ronneby. With a stack of 900 containers, it is about to embark for Colombo. Prasanthan looks upwards at the booth in which he spends so many intense hours, and says, “In this job, there is a lot of stress, but there is also a sense of exhilaration when you do the job well.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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