Jesse Richardson and Jay Schram, both managers at Foss Maritime, were nominated for a 2021-2022 Saltchuk Safety Award for recognizing the need for and implementing new equipment into the company’s seasonal lighterage operation, located 200 miles above the Arctic Circle at Alaska’s Red Dog Mine.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
Jesse Richardson (Project Manager): I was born and raised in Ketchikan, Alaska—an island in Southeast Alaska where it rains an average of 13.5 feet per year. It’s an isolated town you can only leave via the Alaska State Ferry or Alaska Airlines, and more than 95 percent of all goods arrive via barge from Seattle. I graduated from Ketchikan High School and attended the University of Alaska Anchorage, graduating with degrees in Global Logistics and Supply Chain Management and Business Management.
Jay Schram (Manager, FPRJ Teck): I was raised in Oregon farm country. My father was the local veterinarian. I graduated from the local high school with 42 classmates and then attended the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, specializing in Diesel Mechanics.
Tell us about your career, your current position, and what led you to it.
Jesse: During World War II, my grandfather was in the merchant marines and did many different maritime jobs after that in Southeast Alaska. My father started on the tugboats and is still in the marine transportation business. When I was 16, I went to work for the Gildersleeve Logging Co. as a deckhand on its tugs during high school summers and was usually about a week late to return to school because I couldn’t get off the boat. After high school, I continued to work tugs and commercial fished. In 2006, I went to work for Northland Services, a marine transportation company and had the opportunity to travel all over Alaska loading barges and operating assist boats. I left in 2014 and joined Samson Tug and Barge in Seattle to assist with its expansion into Southeast Alaska. I made it to Foss about 18 months later when I was hired on as a Terminal Superintendent to help set up and manage Terminal 5 in Seattle to support the Shell Exploration Project in Alaska. During my time at Foss, I was exposed to many projects and eventually promoted to Project Manager. In 2021, I was asked to manage the Red Dog Program, a seasonal lighterage operation located 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, which we perform with four tugs and two self-unloading barges.
Jay: I spent my first three years in the South Pacific working on tugs as a deckhand/engineer. I then spent 15 years towing in Alaska and the North Pacific—12 years as Captain. I retired from sailing and went to work in marine logistics, loading and discharging cargo via barges, RORO ships, and ITBs. In 2008, I went to work for Foss, loading and delivering food aid and military cargo to countries in the Caribbean, West Africa, and Asia. In 2013, I took over as the Red Dog Project Manager.
Tell us about the hoppers. What makes them dangerous? Walk us through the process to make the job safer.
Jesse: The lighterage barge NOATAK and lighterage barge KIVALINA have two hoppers each which concentrate are loaded into with front end loaders. Loading them isn’t dangerous, but it’s what happens when we plug them. If we plug a hopper with Lead or Zinc concentrate, we have to lock out the conveyor belt system, then put our employees up with ladders to physically dig the concentrate out with a spade shovel. The hoppers are about 12 feet off the ground and taper down inside, so it’s extremely difficult to get inside and stand on the concentrate. It’s like standing on soft, damp dirt—the footing is uneven. I like to remind people this isn’t like shoveling topsoil. Lead concentrate is much heavier, so you can imagine how strenuous this is physically and mentally. When we’re required to dig them out, it entails multiple shifts of crews because they can only shovel for a very short period before they are exhausted, and we rotate them out. It can take hours just to clear a hopper so we can safely restart the belt system again.
When I found out about this, I knew we had to improve, so I brought it up to Jay Schram, who oversees the lighterage operations and barges. This was something he recognized as well. After much discussion, we settled on a towable backhoe which was modified to fit on gated platform and would be secured in the loader bucket, sort of like a 20-foot shipping platform on the forks of a forklift. It’s a pretty simple design but essentially prevents our crews from getting into the hoppers as the backhoe is lifted to the height of the hopper, and we use the bucket to dig, which is similar to digging a hole in the ground except you’re elevated. Typically, we don’t need to remove all the concentrate, just enough to get the belt started. This entire design is predicated on protecting our crews from injuries, whether sprains or strains or something larger like an LTI. We want everyone to complete their shift safely, as does our customer. I feel we also have to show our employees we are trying to make improvements, especially mechanical ones when it makes their job easier and safer—in the end, this improves morale and efficiencies overall.
Is there something in your life that drove your commitment to safety?
Jesse: I would have to say working or managing work in remote locations is what drove and continues to drive my commitment to safety. I feel this brings an added responsibility to ensure the job is being undertaken safely because there is typically a lack of or limited emergency services and oversight. It’s very easy when you are in a remote location and away from everyone, to become complacent from a safety perspective, especially if the job seems repetitive. I often refer to the statement “The Safety Culture is what you do when nobody is watching,” as I feel it’s a measure of your dedication. It’s a powerful statement to me as it’s something we all need to think about when working in locations, whether remote or in your garage by yourself. Don’t take shortcuts. Take the long way, even if it takes a little bit more time, if you feel that is the safest path. You’d most certainly take the time to put on and wear a life jacket to cross between vessels if you knew someone was watching you, but would you take the time to put the life jacket on if you knew nobody was around? I reflect on it often and feel it’s part of the safety mentality we ultimately want everyone to have.
Jay: Being out on the vessels as long as I have, you see a lot of injuries and what they can do to a crewmember, their family, and their way of life. I learned early that safety will save time, money, and your friends. Working in remote locations with limited resources for emergencies always brings added risk. Awareness, discussing the issues with the crews, and knowing what and who your immediate resources are can save lives. I’ve seen it firsthand, and that’s what drives my safety commitment.
What was your first impression of Foss? Tell us your favorite story about your time with the company.
Jesse: I’ve known the Foss name my entire life. Growing up in Ketchikan, people would still talk about Foss Alaska Lines barging freight to Ketchikan, which stopped in the 1980s. As a kid, I’d see Foss towing the CN Rail Barge AQUATRAIN and the Red Dog Ore Barges KIVALINA and NOATAK through Tongass Narrows in front of Ketchikan, along with many other tows Foss undertook. I’ve had many favorite times while at Foss, so it’s hard to pinpoint one. I’d say most recently it was traveling to Red Dog last year for the first time. It was one of the few places I hadn’t been in Alaska, which was great, but more so, it was getting to know the Tug and Barge crews personally and seeing what they do day in and day out to support the lighterage season, which is about 130 days. I ended up spending about a month throughout the season with them all. I discovered we have employees who have been coming up there for 10, 20, even 30 years, and to me, that’s incredible. Our crews show such dedication and professionalism, allowing us to have a program such as Red Dog be extremely successful for so many years, given the isolated and harsh environment our crews work in up there.
Jay: I’ve worked alongside and met a lot of Foss crewmembers throughout the years. Foss has always been a top-tier marine company, setting the bar high for as long as I can remember. Delivering food aid was very enjoyable. I traveled to places I never thought I would see and met some of the kindest people in the world. It was a very challenging position working with the customers, agents, and local longshoremen to complete the deliveries. I met many great people, some of whom I am still in contact with today.
Think about a time in your career when you felt like what you were doing might not be completely safe. What did you learn from that experience?
Jesse: Early in my career, I used to work very long hours and for days on end. This led to fatigue, ultimately affecting my concentration and overall reaction times. At the time, this was the work/safety culture, and you were expected to work in that manner, so I just pushed through in those situations. In hindsight, I realize I was lucky there were no major incidents. Learning from that experience, I want to ensure everyone gets proper rest, even if it causes delays. This is hard to manage, especially if there are commercial pressures, but we all have to take a step back and do what’s best for our employees because Foss will not be successful without them.
Jay: The safety culture has definitely changed during my career. Long hours and understaffed used to be the standard. It’s good to see that companies are committing to safety and a high safety standard. In my opinion, one of the best things Foss has done to promote safety is to authorize the All Stop/Stand Down Authority. I’ve seen it used when crewmembers feel that they are becoming too tired to effectively do their jobs or believe damage may be done.
Speaking up for safety can be difficult for some people. What advice would you give to someone within our family of companies who’s convinced their feedback won’t matter—or worse, that they’ll somehow be punished for taking action?
Jesse: I understand the hesitation in raising concerns, especially if you are the only one raising them at the time, as it can be intimidating, but know your feedback does matter. It doesn’t matter if what you are speaking about is large or small; feedback is needed to improve the organization. If you don’t feel comfortable going to your manager, superintendent, or captain to say something about a situation, then use the buddy system and find a co-worker to point out what you see to get their feedback. Occasionally talking it through with someone gives us a little more confidence to stand up and speak up. And if one feels like their concerns still are not being received, then notify other management personnel in your organization about it. I’m confident you will reach someone quickly who will listen to your concerns and address the situation.
Jay: I think it falls upon us managers to communicate with our teams to make sure they know that speaking up is not only all right but also expected. Whether it changes the way we do an operation or just brings up valid concerns, the crews doing the operation need to know they are working safely. One voice of caution can change the outcome and may make a difference in someone’s life.