Marine Industry Adapts To Overcome COVID-19 Challenges

By Shelley Byrne
and Frank McCormack

The coronavirus pandemic has been rough on the inland marine industry, but company representatives say they are pulling together, taking appropriate safety measures and leveraging new technology to maintain business, all while looking toward brighter days ahead.

George Leavell, executive vice president of Wepfer Marine Inc., put the situation bluntly.

“We’re all affected by it,” he said. “Our revenues are down. Our expenses are up.”

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At the same time, he said, he has been heartened by how well the industry has taken on the task of dealing with a challenge that came on quickly.

“COVID-19 has been a challenge, I think a multi-front challenge,” Leavell said. “The first thing we have to worry about is the safety and health of our employees. The second aspect is we’re in a declining market. It’s had an economic impact not only on our company but throughout the industry. And then you add the regulatory impacts. Fortunately, so far, the Coast Guard has shown some flexibility in working with us, and we need that to continue.”

As would be expected, Wepfer reported declines in overall business volumes beginning in late March and lasting throughout April.

“Coal is just not moving,” Leavell said. “The chemical terminals that we service are also down. We’re not seeing the exact effect yet on products like steel and aggregate and things like that, but if the economy doesn’t kick back in soon, then those industries could be impacted. We’re keeping a watchful eye out to see how those industries will be affected.”

Leavell said he thinks the company’s shipyard in Memphis, Tenn., could take an even bigger hit than its harbor and fleeting operations.

“Some people may elect to defer maintenance if it’s not critical,” he said, noting Wepfer doesn’t have as much business booked on the drydock as it did this time last year.

Wepfer isn’t alone in its concerns.  An executive with a major carrier said the pandemic is impacting both tank and dry cargo barge movements, at least in the short-term.

“Between the virus and the oil glut, the market for barges is erratic,” said the executive, who asked not to be identified. “The demand for gasoline and aviation fuels has dropped, which has reduced the need for tank barge movements, but stationary storage of tank barges is in demand.”

The executive added that using barges for storage may be a solution for the present, but it could also lead to a tank barge shortage once restrictions ease and the public begins traveling and consuming fuels again.

“In either case, the need for horsepower—boats—has dropped, and we do see boats being ‘cold stacked,’” he said.

Leavell said he doesn’t foresee a fast turnaround.

“Nobody I have talked to in the marine industry is optimistic for the second quarter,” Leavell said. “You get varying opinions on what the third and fourth quarters are going to look like.”

Focus On Health And Safety

At the heart of Wepfer’s response has been, first and foremost, taking care of the company’s employees, Leavell said. The company began by getting word out to make sure employees understood the severity of the virus, then worked on putting safety protocols in place.

“That’s making sure we’re sanitizing the boats, social distancing, wearing face coverings, especially when you can’t social distance, keeping the crew members separated,” Leavell said.

Because the company primarily has dinner bucket boats, with crews doing shift work primarily around harbors and fleeting and bringing in their own meals, the company has had the benefit of being able to separate pilots from deckhands for a lot of its work. The wheelhouse is off limits to the deck crew except in emergency situations, and crews are communicating much more by radio than in person.

To make sure the company was protecting its employees as much as possible, Wepfer hired an outside consultant and an occupational health company to standardize its policies and procedures, especially when considering employee health questions, like who should be tested and when they should return to work if they were tested, said Michael Block, Wepfer’s vice president of safety and regulatory compliance. So far, he said, no employees have tested positive for the virus, although a few had what turned out to be the flu and other illnesses.

Many of Wepfer’s employees are working from home, and others are rotating in and out of the office while maintaining social distancing, Block said. At first, he said, finding personal protective equipment was a bit of a challenge, and there were some supply chain disruptions, but those issues have largely been ironed out in the intervening weeks.

Utilizing technology in doing business has been important, Block said, adding he thinks employees are very likely better connected than before, especially with use of video conferencing technology and being intentional about regular check-ins.

“I think we’ve had more communications with them,” he said. “There have been some meetings in person with these folks, and we’re staying in more contact. We’re being a little more intentional about the contact and conversations we’re having with some of our outside managers with the impact COVID-19 is having.”

Technology has also been helpful in working with the Coast Guard and third-party organizations (TPOs), Block said. The Coast Guard did a virtual inspection using Coast Guard checklists, email transferring documents back and forth and conference calls for one of Wepfer’s waterfront facilities. TPOs have also offered virtual audits and surveys; however, Wepfer has not opted to use these services so far.

“The saying is we’re all in this together, and the marine industry is a small community,” Leavell said. “We’re trying to work together to ensure the safety of our employees and our customers’ employees while doing tow work and setting up docks.”

For companies that move barges over longer distances, keeping crews safe both while they are on the job and during transport between home and the vessel is especially costly.

Prior to the pandemic, crew members would commonly fly, then drive, to catch their boat or return home. Now, many towing companies are requiring crew travel via personal or company vehicle only, at great expense to the company.

In many cases, COVID-19 protocols require vessels to be sanitized at least once a day, with linens changed daily as well. Crew members do a “pre-check” before boarding transport vans or vessels, during which their temperature is checked and they are asked if they have traveled during off time, been exposed to the virus or had symptoms of the virus.

At company headquarters, only essential personnel are working in the office, with as many as possible working remotely. One company executive admitted the cost of COVID-19 protocol implementation has been enormous.

“And the way we have done business in the past will never be the same again,” one executive said. “But we are essential to the nation, so the inland fleet of towboats and barges must keep moving.”

Fighting Complacency

As states loosen restrictions on gatherings and allow more businesses to fully operate, Leavell said it is important for companies to remember not to relax restrictions too much.

“I think as the states are starting to open the economies and businesses, the thing we’re going to fight largely is complacency, that people think, well, we’re getting back to normal,” he said. “Just because the states are reopening doesn’t mean we don’t need to social distance. You still need to wash hands and use hand sanitizers at home and at work and make sure we social distance as much as possible. We’re going to be in it until there is a vaccine or a treatment that lessens severity until it’s like nothing more than a bad cold.”

He also said there could be positives to come out of what has been a difficult situation.

“We hope that one of the things that will be a positive going forward is the way we’ve been sanitizing things and the different forms of training we’ve been doing, that it will reduce lost time when flu season comes around next year because people will be more in tune with watching out,” he said.

Leavell also wanted to express appreciation to Wepfer’s employees.

“These are all essential employees, and we’ve tried to let them know they’re essential not just to our companies but to the flow of commerce throughout the nation, and that the job they’re doing matters,” he said.

Catching The Virus

For Evansville Marine Service, the response to COVID-19 has been personal.

Company president and owner Bob Aldrich and his sons Kyle Aldrich, executive vice president, and Travis Burton, operations manager, were all diagnosed with the coronavirus in mid-April.

Thankfully, none of them required hospitalization.

“It was like a really bad flu,” Bob Aldrich said.

He described having little energy, a slight cough, sore throat and a night of fever and chills as well as some shortness of breath.

“I would just do something small, and then I would realize I needed to catch my breath,” he said. “Even to this day I get a little bit winded. I’m not 100 percent, but I’m definitely in the high 90s.”

Health care providers told the men to expect continued shortness of breath for up to a couple of months.

All three men were strictly quarantined for seven days, then followed by health professionals for another week or so. To return to work, they were required to have stayed home for at least seven days since developing symptoms and until they had been fever-free and with no major symptoms for a minimum of 72 hours.

Already, the men have checked into donating plasma as an experimental treatment for those with more clinically severe cases of COVID-19, and expect to be doing that within the next several weeks.

The company restricted access to its offices and vessels, having most other employees work from home and closing the doors both to the public and to employees who work at other sites. Now, in a process he described as slowly and safely, employees are returning to the office. When they do so has not been a one-size-fits-all approach, he said. Instead, it has involved lots of individual conversations about any special medical issues employees may have as well as their comfort level and the comfort levels of employees’ immediate families.

Some people, he said, are more cautious. Others are ready to get back to work. He suggested allowing those ready to resume their duties to lead the way.

“It’s so new and so fresh,” Aldrich said of the virus. “We don’t have antibodies, and we don’t have vaccines. It’s just a learning curve, but we definitely have to get people back to work, get the lights back on and get it where people can pay their rent and support their children.”

Both in the office and on its boats, Evansville Marine has worked to make sure all employees have access to personal protective equipment, including hand sanitizer made by a local distiller and purchased in five-gallon buckets. Managers have also reviewed social distancing policies with employees and have utilized health surveys during crew changes.

Although business has dropped off, Aldrich said, federal CARES funding has been of help to Evansville Marine, and employees are rising to the challenge of operating under new restrictions. Aldrich praised all of the employees working at facilities ranging from offices to vessels to shipyards and docks.

“We were able to operate safely and continuously, nonstop,” Aldrich said.

Line Haulers Adapting

At Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Campbell Transportation Company Inc., managers said they took a proactive, preventative approach to the coronavirus beginning in early March.

“We stood up our internal incident command structure team, and we started meeting at least daily, seven days a week,” said Ryan Newton, director of safety and employee development. “It became pretty apparent early on that we would switch all those we could to working from home.”

The company put together a “test” day working from home to make sure employees had the technology they needed at their fingertips.

“The technology that is out there has really allowed us to continue on,” Newton said.

For those working on the boats, Campbell developed a survey employees filled out within 24 hours of planned return to a vessel or facility, indicating whether they had any signs of potential COVID-19. Employees could pull up the survey on their cell phones. Answers that could be indicative of an employee having a virus were automatically flagged by the software, Newton said, allowing managers to call the employee immediately to better assess the situation.

Campbell also reported zero positive cases of coronavirus, although they did find some cases of the flu.

Campbell’s purchasing manager prioritized focus on maintaining the company’s supply of personal protective equipment, supplying the boats before the office staff because of the difficulty of maintaining social distancing aboard a vessel when working together in close quarters.

“We never went without, but he definitely had to use different vendors and change things around,” Newton said. “We ordered in larger quantities so we would have it on hand, but that really leveled itself out pretty quickly.”

Newton also praised how well companies that are competitors at other times worked together to solve the problems the pandemic presented for all of them.

“We have a call with some industry partners at least weekly if not multiple times a week,” Newton said. “We found that to be very beneficial because with this being so new, we were able to talk to some others and say, hey, what are you doing? What’s nice about our industry is even though we’re all competition, we share information that matters. Everybody’s sharing information for the greater good, and that’s been very helpful.”

As states have loosened their restrictions, Campbell Transportation is slowly phasing back into operation at its offices. The first day back for some employees was May 8, Newton said. For now, about 10 employees are working from the office, and they are rotating going in about three days a week. The company also took out several chairs in conference rooms and adjusted office space as possible to allow for social distancing.

“We have a whole table of PPE we have provided for our folks,” Newton said, including face masks and hand sanitizer.

Like Leavell, Newton said he sees some positive practices emerging that could help companies as they get back to normal, day-to-day operations. That could include video conferencing technology allowing people to travel but also maintain meetings more often, he said. It may also allow employees more flexibility in caring for family members while also taking care of their employer’s needs.

Industry officials are also learning to maximize their time on board a vessel. Some periodic internal inspections have been done on video by phone, Newton said. Some paperwork checks have been done ahead of time on a teleconference.

Creative Solutions

Unlike many of its competitors, Ingram Barge Company already had some experience with employees working from home, rolling out a limited program allowing the option last year, said Andrew Brown, Ingram’s assistant vice president of legal and claims.

“A lot of folks have spent a lot of time thinking through this, and I think what we’ve done has been a success,” Brown said of the company’s response to the pandemic.

He emphasized creative, out-of-the-box solutions and said employees have responded and adapted well.

Beginning in early March, Ingram formed an internal taskforce to address response and planning.

“We’ve had kind of a cross-functional team from all corners of the company come together a couple of times per week since all this began,” he said.

Part of the work has been reviewing both Centers for Disease Control and American Waterways Operators guidance and instituting policies and procedures. The company has also held some internal drills, which it has found beneficial, Brown said.

Although restrictions are easing across the country, “Obviously it’s something that remains an ongoing concern, and we’re staying focused on the issue,” Brown said. “We’ve put our mariners and our people who work shoreside in a good position to respond to any situation they encounter.”

That has included keeping boats and facilities well stocked with supplies. Ingram has also instituted temperature checks, asked employees to socially distance when possible and to wear masks when not possible and to be vigilant about hygiene.

“We’ve examined every aspect of operations to make sure we’re not overlooking best practices,” Brown said.

As states begin to reopen, a working group continues to address business needs, Brown said, adding that they are harmonizing different directives from the states and the federal government to create a plan that works across different states and geographical regions.

Moving into the future, Ingram and the other companies continue to adapt as necessary to changing conditions presented by the pandemic.

Brown said, “We’re working very closely with outside health providers to make sure that what we’re doing is going to prepare us so we’re able to move forward with minimal disruption for our customers and our associates.”