SIC 4491 Marine Cargo Handling


SIC 4491

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in activities directly related to marine cargo handling from the time cargo, for or from a vessel, arrives at shipside, dock, pier, terminal, staging area, or in-transit area until cargo loading or unloading operations are completed. Included in this industry are establishments primarily engaged in the transfer of cargo between ships and barges, trucks, trains, pipelines, and wharfs. Cargo-handling operations carried on by transportation companies and separately reported are classified here. This industry includes the operation and maintenance of piers, docks, and associated buildings and facilities, but lessors of such facilities are classified in SIC 6512: Operators of Nonresidential Buildings.



Port and Harbor Operations


Marine Cargo Handling


More than two billion tons of foreign and domestic commerce move through U.S. ports each year. Port and harbor facilities provide employment for companies that load and unload ships, transfer cargo from one mode of transport to another, or provide storage facilities. In mid-2000s some 850 U.S. establishments employing more than 43,300 workers participated in marine cargo-handling operations. The West Coast ports at Los Angeles and Long Beach were the busiest ports by revenue during the mid-2000s. New York and Houston were also major hubs.

Ports on the U.S. West, East, and Gulf Coasts include both public facilities governed by port authorities and privately held terminals. Companies employ stevedores or longshoremen to load and unload break-bulk, bulk, or container ships. Most of these workers belong to a longshoremen's union. The goals of these unions are to preserve longshore employment and to raise the wages of members. The West Coast trade has represented about 50 percent of the total containerized waterborne trade in the United States, supported by high-growth markets in the Asia-Pacific region.

Containerization, or the use of standardized containers to ship bulk cargo, was one of the most important innovations in the marine cargo handling industry. This standardization of cargo handling produced both increased productivity and reduced labor needs. Another fundamental change in the industry was the growing usage of computerization in nearly every aspect of work, both in the office and on the wharf. The development of automation and containerization, including the growing use of robotics, could eventually make marine cargo handling completely automated. In 2004 the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach handled more than 40 percent of all containers shipped into the United States and approximately two-thirds of all Asian imports.

As more and more U.S. manufacturers moved production overseas, the amount of imports arriving at U.S. ports was growing rapidly during the mid-2000s. Imports from Asia in particular overwhelmed West Coast ports during 2004. Unprepared for a 12 percent surge in activity, ports were caught shorthanded, leading to long delays for ships, truck, and merchants waiting for their goods to arrive. The industry reacted with thousands of new hires, but tension remained in how to balance union labor with non-union temporary workers.


America's busiest ports, by tons of cargo, were the ports in South Louisiana, Houston, New York, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Corpus Christi, and Valdez, Arkansas. Port authorities were created from the 1920s to the 1950s, when port cities realized the economic impact shipping had on not only their city but also the general public. During that 30-year period, large amounts of public funds were spent to repair and replace cargo and port facilities, but by the start of the 1990s, many were found to be in poor financial shape. Only 33 percent of the ports on the North Atlantic coastline showed a profit before tax support, and only the Pacific ports—especially those in Southern California—consistently reported profits prior to subsidy. Privatization of the industry has been contemplated by several port authorities, particularly in Washington, but most of the industry remained in the hands of private sector interests.

Companies that handle cargo at the ports, generally referred to as terminal operators, provide a variety of services to incoming and outgoing shippers. Usually these include loading and unloading ships, transferring cargo from one mode of transport to another, and storing cargo. Employees of marine cargo handling companies that actually perform the loading and unloading are called stevedores or longshoremen. Many employees belong to one of two unions, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) or the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

On the shipping end of the industry, the Pacific Maritime Association represented more than 70 stevedore companies, terminal operators, and shipping lines on the West Coast as of 2003. The American Shippers Association reported roughly 700 members in recent years. These associations provide a unified front for negotiating favorable rates and services, promoting fair competition, and bargaining with the longshoremen's unions.


Beginning in the 1960s, the cargo-handling industry experienced tremendous changes. As early as the 1940s, mechanized cargo handling began in North America. However, its growth during the 1960s and the containerization movement during the 1970s resulted in great changes in worker activities, costs, and productivity levels.

The three kinds of cargo handled by stevedores included break-bulk, bulk, and containerized. Break-bulk general cargo vessels totaled 21 percent of the world's shipping by gross registered tonnage (GRT). Break-bulk general cargo ships were self-sustaining in cargo handling, meaning that they did not need on-shore handling equipment. Many ships even carried their own containers in order to operate at ports lacking adequate handling facilities. These kinds of ships included coasters, tramps (cargo vessels lacking a regular schedule), and cargo liners.

Handling break-bulk cargo was normally labor intensive and time consuming, requiring the movement of sheds close to the berth and the availability of equipment for lifting and moving cargo. On the ship, moving cargo usually involved making slings or trays and carrying or hauling heavy cargo into the center of the hatch to remove it from the ship. Movement of break-bulk cargo required extra caution when pipes, plates, and other awkward loads or dangerous materials had to be transported. Work on the wharf included making up slings and landing loads onto vehicles. Use of forklift trucks and mobile cranes, both introduced to most ports during the 1960s, was fundamental in removing much of the hard labor from onshore cargo handling.

Bulk cargo vessels ranged from 50,000 to 150,000 deadweight tons (DWT), and most of the larger modern vessels were without cargo-lifting equipment. These kinds of vessels included bulk carriers, ore carriers, timber carriers, and combination carriers for ore and oil, and for ore, dry bulk, or oil. Bulk cargoes such as ore, coal, coke, bauxite, sand, and salt once were handled using buckets, scoops, and baskets. However, the loading and unloading of bulk cargo was mechanized long ago. Bulk terminals handled a combination of commodities such as grain, wood chips, and scrap metal, while others housed a single commodity such as iron ore, copper ore, or minerals. Liquid bulk cargo such as crude oil and petroleum products accounted for more than 40 percent of the cargo engaged in seaborne trade. Handling of liquid bulk was almost entirely automated, thus requiring limited manpower.

The development of standardized modular containers for transporting bulk goods became known as containerized cargo. Standardization included the maximum weight of individual containers, specific lifting points, and uniform shapes. Due to containerization, much of the handling equipment in ports around the world also became highly standardized. Most manufactured goods and primary products were carried by containers. Only very large items were...

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