U.S. barge lines beef up crew safety as virus threatens crucial cargo

River barge and grain handling ( Charles Johnson )

By Karl Plume

March 19 (Reuters) - The world has radically changed since towboat captain Terry Hall boarded his vessel late last month in Wood River, Illinois, for his four-week shift hauling bargeloads of crude oil, chemicals, scrap metal and other goods up and down the Mississippi River.

His employer, Canal Barge Co, has beefed up pre-board health screenings for all crew to include a temperature check and disclosures about recent travel and personal interactions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Any disruption to the floating pipeline of raw materials and finished goods could deepen the economic pain for critical industries already stinging from the coronavirus pandemic. The virus' spread across the globe, with infections reaching nearly 228,000 people and deaths topping 9,200, has hammered financial markets and all but ensured a global recession.

Heightened demand for food imports amid the pandemic could boost grain barge shipments blunted since 2018 by the U.S.-China trade war.

If Hall or a crew member falls ill with COVID-19, costs for sidelining the vessel mid-journey, quarantining the crew, cleaning the vessel and mobilizing another crew could run $40,000 to $50,000 per day, said Canal Barge's chief executive, Merritt Lane.

For Canal, which operates 49 towboats, the outage of one vessel could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars due to lost shipping opportunities and disruption of its highly coordinated fleet, Lane said.

The Merrick Jones, Hall's towboat, now gets common areas frequented by the crew of 10 sanitized twice a day instead of once every three or four, and fueling and resupply stops have virtually eliminated person-to-person contact with those on shore.

The enhanced protocols are now the standard for the barge shipping industry, which hauls billions of dollars in food, energy and industrial goods on U.S. inland waterways to keep factories, refineries, food processors and grain export facilities running.

"Everything's tightening up," Hall said by phone as his vessel sailed past Plaquemine, Louisiana. "We can't let anything slip through the cracks."

"We move a lot of stuff that this country needs desperately. We'd clog up every road in the system with trucks if we stopped moving out here," he said.

There have been no reported coronavirus cases among U.S. barge shippers and no towboats have been quarantined, according to industry group American Waterways Operators (AWO).

AWO issued detailed guidelines last week to protect the industry's diverse crews of typically eight to 10 people that are often housed in tight quarters while traversing thousands of miles through several states.

 

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