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Tropical Shipping Shipside Operations Supervisor Robert Ackley is a 2021-2022 Saltchuk Safety Award nominee after a series of pinch-point finger and hand injuries led to co-creating a tool that allows the company’s stevedores to hold lifting cables away from cargo, preventing exposure to pinch-point hazards.

Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? 

I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on April 2, 1971, but moved to Lansing, Michigan, when I was two months old. In 1980, we moved to Palm Beach County, Florida, and I’ve lived in the area ever since.

Tell me about your career, your current position, and what led you to it.  

In 1993, I had a roommate who’d been hired at Tropical Shipping and was able to get me an interview for the position of Gate Monitor. As luck would have it, I got the job. I was 22 years old, and it was my introduction to the corporate world. I spent the next five years learning all positions within the Interchange Department. In 1998, I decided to take a new path within the company and transferred to the Stevedore Department. Starting at the bottom, I took on the role of Signalman and quickly moved up to Shipside Checker. The position of Jockey Driver came soon after, followed by Reach Stacker and Straddle Carrier, where I remained from 2001 until 2018. In 2018, I took on the role of Supervisor in charge of nightshift operations and, from there, moved into the role of Jocker Driver Supervisor. Since 2020, I’ve co-supervised shipside operations with a great management staff.

In your own words, why were you nominated for a safety award? Tell us about the tool you created to help put an end to a recent spate of pinch-point injuries.

My co-supervisor (Tropical Shipside Operations Supervisor) Daniel Gonzalez and I were surprised when we were nominated. I believe the nomination was given because we weren’t asked to find a solution to the problem—we took it upon ourselves out of concern for the personal safety of our crews. The tool was a simple design of vinyl-coated steel cable crimped onto our slings with a handle crimped onto the other end. This allows our crews to keep their hands well away from any pinch point when doing lifts with slings.

Is there something in your life that drove your commitment to safety?

When you are young, you are reckless. When you get older, you become cautious. With age comes wisdom. My commitment to safety came about from age and wisdom.

What was your first impression of Tropical? Tell us your favorite story about your time with the company.

My first impression of Tropical Shipping was quite overwhelming. At the age of 22, I’d never worked in any other industry other than food service. It was quite the change of pace. My favorite memories go way back to before 9/11. Back then, port tenants were allowed to come in and fish on the weekends. Any given Sunday morning, there would be between 20 and 30 guys hanging out and fishing. We’d be there from sun up until sundown. Good times.

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?

When I was a Strad operator, we used to climb out of the bottom of the cabs onto a container to clean our windows. Hindsight being 20/20, it wasn’t the brightest thing we ever did. There were no safety harnesses or preventive fall measures at all. A little critical thinking can always come up with a better solution. We have since implemented a safer procedure using manlift and proper training.

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?

Speaking up for safety is always in everyone’s best interest. Being complacent about potential safety hazards is no way to foster a healthy, safe work environment. If you feel like your concerns aren’t being heard, keep addressing them with as many people as possible. Eventually, somebody will take notice and will act on your concerns.

Missed our Q&A with Jesse Richardson & Jay Schram of Foss Maritime? Read it here!

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.