Union leaders call it "working safe" - making sure every safety rule at the ports is followed to the letter. For their part, company officials say those are just code words for dockworkers slowing down and gumming up their operations.
As the International Longshore and Warehouse Union prepared to go back to work as early as tonight, following a lockout at 29 West Coast ports, the distinction between working safe and working slow still loomed as a potential source of trouble.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators has vowed to seek sanctions against the union in the event of slowdowns. But the ILWU has claimed there's good reason for "working safe": five deaths among its members so far this year, compared to one or two deaths a year normally.
Union members contend that as cargo shipments have grown, so has the danger.
In 2001, more than 142 million tons of goods, from frozen chicken feet to tennis shoes, moved through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., the United States' largest harbor complex. That's four times the tonnage reported in 1980, according to the maritime group.
America's appetite for cheap imported goods is driving demand for bigger vessels, which require more-powerful tugboats, larger terminals with longer wharves, bigger cranes, faster trains and more big rigs than ever to handle the freight.
"Anymore, when you get nudged by something in the port you get crushed or maimed," said Tom Harrison, president of the ILWU Local 63. "So we try to stand in conspicuous places where there's room to run or back away without running into a machine or a wall."
Union leaders cited the deaths last month when they began to "work safe" amid stalled contract talks. Pacific Maritime Association officials claimed the union's action was an orchestrated disruption to show its displeasure with negotiations, and ultimately ordered a lockout Sept. 29 - shutting down the ports.
The five deaths among ILWU members include one in Oregon and four in California. In addition, two non-ILWU dockworkers have also died on the job in California this year, according to the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
By comparison, there had been an average of about one port worker death a year in California for the past decade - although in 1997, there were five deaths, said Cal-OSHA spokeswoman Susan Gard.
Of the six California fatalities this year, three occurred at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There were no worker fatalities at the complex in 2000 and 2001.
State and federal safety officials, who are investigating the accidents this year, say they don't appear to follow any pattern.
"The number of fatal accidents we've seen this year is raising concerns," said Dean Fryer, a spokesman for Cal-OSHA. "But they involved different employers, different kinds of machinery, and different circumstances at different times of the year."
The management group also said it would be a mistake to try to draw sweeping conclusions from the spike in deaths this year.
"These are unfortunate situations - an anomaly - and they are being investigated by the appropriate agencies," said Tom Edwards, the Northern California regional manager for maritime association and a member of its contract negotiating team.
Nonetheless, with the ports expected to reopen, the union has raised the prospect that slowdowns in the name of safety will persist.
"We're going to continue to work safe," union President James Spinosa told reporters Monday, when asked how the union would handle the reopening. "Five people being killed on the waterfront in that short a time has to be reckoned with," he said. "And if that's a slowdown, then that's a slowdown, but that's the way we're going to work. We're going to work safe."
The Maritime Association, however, says technological changes being resisted by the union could improve safety.
"In the next decade, the volume of cargo moving through the ports will explode," Edwards said. "The most effective and safe way to run the terminals will be to get more workers off the yards and into offices, where they can monitor activity from computers and television screens."