Fears wharfies health at risk 01 February 2002

By JULIAN SLADE The watersiders' union is developing guidelines to protect wharfies' health as a result of safety concerns about chemicals used to fumigate ships.

Auckland wharfies stopped work on Tuesday after discovering Australian redback spiders aboard the Tauranga Chief .

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestries staff fumigated the vessel's hold before the watersiders were issued protective clothing and gumboots to complete unloading its cargo of steel.

A MAF spokesman say quarantine officers found redback spiders during a routine inspection of a cargo of steel from Australia.

A watersider, who asked not to be identified, said MAF staff gave workers one-piece overalls and gumboots and allowed them to continue unloading the ship's cargo after the hold was sprayed.

Cargo bound for other New Zealand ports of Tauranga and Lyttleton will be fumigated when it reaches those ports.

New Zealand Waterfront Workers Union general secretary, Trevor Hanson, says there are concerns for the safety of watersiders exposed to methyl bromide, the chemical used to fumigate ships.

"I was pleased the way the Auckland branch handled the incident," says Mr Hanson. "It's not just redback spider bites we're worried about. The chemical methyl bromide affects different people in different ways."

He says a recent case in Nelson, where five union members entered a fumigation shed after they were given spoken assurances it was safe, resulted in all five being hospitalised. Four recovered quickly, but one was off work for more than a year.

Mr Hanson says the union is developing protocols to govern the handling of such chemicals to ensure the safety of workers, and has alerted its members to the risks.

The union has asked fumigation experts to provide written assurances that ships' hatches are safe for workers after spraying and an initial airing period. It has also contacted the Health Department to ensure that medical staff are prepared to offer immediate relief for workers bitten by the spiders.

Redback bites can cause paralysis, nausea, vomiting and irregular heartbeats.

A MAF spokesman says the spiders are already established in New Zealand so MAF biosecurity staff act in a surveillance and management mode.


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