Portaferry to Strangford ferry workers call for action, including the conduct of an independent risk assessment, to address their health and safety concerns

Joanne McWilliams, Unite Regional Officer

Department for Infrastructure inaction on workforce fears over exhaust fumes on the Strangford II leaves crew constantly worried about their health and that of Ferry users, including school children

Minister’s promise to install Diesel Particulate Filters branded ‘too little, far too late’ as workers express willingness to strike over safety concerns

Joanne McWilliams, Regional Officer for Unite expressed her disappointment with the response to workforce health and safety concerns from Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon.

“Our members who operate the ferry service between Strangford and Portaferry have been raising health and safety concerns in relation to the Strangford II vessel since it came into service four years ago. They have given the Department time to resolve them but our concerns remain.

“Workers have documented how the engine and generator exhaust pipes on the Strangford II release noxious fumes at water level which mean in adverse conditions they can congregate on deck and in workplaces. This contrasts with the situation on the Portaferry II where exhaust stacks release fumes high up meaning this risk is avoided. Those who work on the vessels have repeatedly reported reporting dizziness, headaches and chest conditions as a result of the fumes.

“Unite wrote to Minister Mallon to raise these concerns and sought a meeting to hear at first hand the concerns and experience of the workers. To date no meeting has been arranged, instead the Minister’s response reiterated the stopgap measure of installing a diesel particulate filter on the Strangford II, a promise made in May 2020 by ferry management – with no indication of a timeframe even for that inadequate measure. Her disappointing response has only raised frustration among the workers who have to work with these fumes day after day – what she has offered is ‘too little, far too late’ as far as they are concerned.

“Minister Mallon did indicate her interest in the electrification of the ferry – suggested by workers as both a long-term solution and an environmental necessity in the context of the ‘code red’ climate crisis – but no indication of a timeframe was given or even whether this would definitely proceed.

“The Strangford-Portaferry service plays a vital role in the local economy facilitating commuters, freight, schoolchildren, tourists and staycationers. In 2019 passenger numbers for the service was more than 600,000. The ferries also transport approximately 150 school children every day to get to school and back. With Covid restrictions, these children have been forced to stay on-deck where they have been exposed to the exhaust fumes. Our members are not at all happy about what they feel is a potential risk to young people. Of course for the crew themselves, who work on deck every day, this is a major concern – especially as the fumes congregate worst when the vessel is stationary at dock.

“The workers are demanding Minister Mallon intervene immediately to organise a fresh risk assessment of the exhaust fumes on the Strangford II, that this be carried out by an independent assessor and that it is extensive and involves discussion with crew. They further request that she commit to install an exhaust stack similar to that on the Portaferry II, and that pending this safety measure, or the full-scale electrification of the vessel, that the Strangford II ferry is only used in emergencies.

“Unite recently held a consultative ballot of our members, who constitute the overwhelming majority of those working on this service, in which 100 percent voted indicating a willingness to strike. They are determined to end this long-running concern about the safety of themselves and to the passengers, in particular the school children who use this service twice a day. Minister Mallon must now act to address those concerns”, Ms McWilliams concluded

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