Three heavy machinery operators say they're physically, emotionally and financially broken after suffering serious back injuries while working at the Port of Tauranga.
The men are currently or have been employed by C3 Limited or ISL, which contracts with the Port of Tauranga, spoke to Newshub on condition of anonymity to outline their concerns, claiming management's focus is "profit over people".
Two of the men, Bruce* and Rawiri* still work at the wharf and another, Chris*, was let go in April after five years at C3 as a result of an injury he claims he sustained on-site.
The men drive 65-tonne straddles at the Port of Tauranga, a vehicle used at port terminals to stack and move shipping containers. They claim many of the port's straddles are poorly maintained - and in some cases, the seat suspension does not work, so jolts are magnified through the machine.
When they run over potholes or cracks in the tarmac, the impact force can travel straight up their spine.
"A lot of them are old machines, it's wear and tear, but it's having a detrimental impact on the drivers," Bruce told Newshub.
A Port of Tauranga spokesperson told Newshub the health and safety of employees and contractors is its number one priority and the container terminal is a high traffic environment where their civil works team inspects the site daily.
They said any pavement issues are immediately fixed or blocked off until they can be repaired.
But the men say that is not the case at all, and the injuries they have suffered on-site have created serious issues across many aspects of their lives.
'The port's problem'
Chris* can still remember the moment he was hurt after feeling a jolt in February 2019, three years into his employment with C3.
"I was in agony, I didn't know what I had done," he told Newshub. "As a result of driving over said potholes, I now have three prolapsed and torn discs in my lower back.
"When you're sitting right on the top of the machine those things have air suspension seats, they don't all work, they are frequently broken.
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"If you complain about driving a machine, the culture is either 'drive that machine or we'll give you one of the really old machines to drive' or 'you might as well go home because there's nothing here for you to do'.
"That's not acceptable, but that's the culture of the mentality of the port."
He's heard employers saying 'just drive around the potholes', but when they are full of water and it's at night you can't see them.
"You quickly remember where they are though because driving over these things is violent. The straddles weigh approximately 65 tonnes and you can carry up to approximately 50 tonnes. The yard - which is tarmac - is always developing potholes and ruts from constant use."
The grandfather-of-seven says on average, a port worker can pull a 12-hour day with breaks.
It is common practice for drivers to 'hot seat', so as one person comes in for a break, another goes out in their machine. For those working a 12-hour shift, Chris says it's common to drive up to five different straddles a day, with some often breaking down or malfunctioning.
"Every time you get in a new straddle you have to adjust everything to suit you; this includes the air in your seat if it isn't broken. The issue with driving a straddle without suspension is when you drive over potholes or ruts on the yard, all of the impact force travel straight up your spine."
Chris says he understands logistically it can be a nightmare trying to cordon off an area to get the potholes patched up, but doesn't believe the workers should be paying the price.
"That's not actually our problem, that's the port's problem, but they make it our problem because we're just supposed to suck it up, and they like rubbishing you for complaining."
When Chris told his doctor of the pain in his back, he took some time off work and scan results indicated he had prolapsed discs. He was then administered his first steroid injection in his back.
"The first one helped, I had a reprieve for about five months, took quite some time but ended up going back to work, got back up to full capacity, we believe the shot worked and then it wore off, they don't last."
He says his back was playing up again after driving over more potholes. Further scans revealed the three prolapsed and torn discs. His doctor ordered him off work for a couple of weeks but the situation quickly turned into "a circus" once he told C3.
"They want you to play ball, they don't want to record lost time injuries, that affects their insurances."
"I can't even pick my grandkids'
Chris contacted Newshub in March to blow the whistle on the "lack of duty of care" and negligence at the Port of Tauranga.
Chris said he began to feel as though he was being "railroaded" - like his job was in jeopardy - so he approached the union. The union delegate at the time spoke to C3 on his behalf and asked the company to respect his doctor's diagnosis.
Then after expressing concerns about the port's responsibility to ensure safety around potholes to a union delegate, Chris was ultimately terminated from C3 in April, being deemed 'medically unfit' due carry out his role as a result of the back injury he sustained while driving a straddle on the Port of Tauranga site.
In a statement C3 Limited and Pedersen Group COO, Gavin Hudson told Newshub C3 Limited values and cares for its employees and to prioritise their safety and wellbeing at all times.
"Our safety systems and processes are constructed around protecting our people’s welfare, of which proactive injury management is included.
"As part of this strong focus and concern for employee safety, we have a supportive and professional injury management approach and program that aims to return employees to their regular duties as soon as practicable."
Chris told Newshub he rejects that's the case at all and says the emotional turmoil caused since sustaining his injury has been deeply upsetting.
"My family is devastated. They can do this to you and then chuck you on a scrap heap, but that's the system. I did go through a really deep, dark depression, there was over a week that I didn't come out of my room, I didn't get out of bed, I didn't open the curtains, I since dug myself out of that hole, now every day I have to work really hard to maintain some sort of positivity, I can't work right now, I'm screwed."
He's had five painful injections into his spine since his injury, including one epidural, which was "horrible" and his abilities as a once "very hands-on, physical" man and the limitations he now faces are devastating.
"I can't even pick my grandkids up now, that hurts. And not just me, for our kids, for our grandkids, it has impacted our lives so much, it really has been tough."
'Felt a slight pinch'
Another straddle driver, Rawiri*, told Newshub the injury he suffered while driving at a straddle at the Port of Tauranga has turned his life upside down.
The man, who is currently employed by C3, says he drove over a pothole one night at work which jolted him up and down.
"I felt a slight pinch straight after that on my lower left back and about half an hour after, the pain gradually got worse and I started feeling pins and needles down my leg as the night went on."
He was eventually told the only way to take the pain away and get some normality back in his life is to have surgery after no improvements came through physio and his symptoms got worse.
The Tauranga father was forced to return to work soon without taking the full amount of recommended recovery time when ACC declined to cover his surgery on the grounds it was believed his injury was "prehistoric" - which Rawiri says is not correct at all.
"If it was a prehistoric injury this would have been symptomatic way earlier into my straddle driving career," he says.
He asked for ACC's decline decision to be reviewed and provided a medical opinion from the treating surgeon in support of this.
ACC told Newshub this was received on 31 May, and it is now being looked at by clinical experts.
Gavin Hudson, the COO for C3 - Rawiri's employer, refused to answer specific questions around concerns for employees working on straddles at the Port of Tauranga site. In a statement, he did not acknowledge the allegations made by the port workers interviewed by Newshub.
"C3 Limited works closely with the Port of Tauranga and supports its significant investment into providing and maintaining a safe operating environment for our straddle drivers, including pavement refurbishment programs and ergonomic and safety-featured straddle carriers."
'Felt pretty crook'
Another worker, Bruce, also seriously injured his back while driving a straddle at the Port of Tauranga.
"The roads were in a terrible state at the port. It's always about profit and not enough going back into the maintenance," he told Newshub.
He says while operating such heavy machinery, "huge, deep corrugations" are made within the tarmac.
"From up above, they look like two or three inches deep, when you get down they're about 10 inches deep, with the weight of the machines running over them for months and months. It's a 24/7 operation."
He was moving through the yard when he hit two sets of corrugations, and the air-cushioning went.
"I was just jarring, I felt pretty crook," he says.
He caused significant damage to his back and required a major medical procedure however Newshub has chosen not to identify either as Bruce is still employed.
He now "lives on painkillers and anti-inflammatories" and struggles at times to carry out his duties at work without feeling nerve pain.
"I have good days and bad days."
He believes the Port of Tauranga does try hard to do the best they can do to make the roads better and cover the potholes, but the volume of activity at the port is too high.
Bruce says at one point there were "37 people off with back injuries at one time". He is hopeful the appointment of an employee who has "been the boots on the ground" into an operational role will see problems addressed.
"He can see it from both sides," Bruce said.
'Big wigs don't give a shit'
The men are calling for impact sensors to be put on the machines to hold the Port of Tauranga to account.
"They say 'we don't think that will fix the problem', we believe that it needs to be addressed in a way that we can work out about the yard, I want sensors put on the machines so the impact force is recordable, they are measurable, and they are traceable so the port can't play down the nature of what's going on," Chris says.
"It makes me really angry that we have to do the things we have to do, to take care of our families/our whanau when these big wigs don't give a shit. This has affected everything, I've been in tears, I deal with a psychologist weekly because I've said from the beginning I had no idea how much of a mental battle this was going to become.
"You physically hurt yourself, and your initial focus is physical but the mental, the emotional, it's really, really tough."
In its statement to Newshub, a Port of Tauranga spokesperson said Port of Tauranga spends more than $2 million a year on pavement refurbishment and claimed to take a number of measures to ensure safety.
"All straddle drivers have access to a reporting system which ensures any pavement issues are promptly reported. We also have a multi-disciplinary project team that continually investigates tactical and strategic solutions to pavement issues.
"Our straddle carriers are fitted with shock-absorbing components, and these are regularly checked and replaced when necessary. The driver’s seats are air-cushioned, hydraulic suspension seats and are fully adjustable (including lumbar and back support). The seats are inspected regularly as part of routine straddle maintenance and are replaced approximately every 15,000 hours of use. Stability alarms are built-in, and become louder depending on the tightness of the turn and speed of the machine."
*Chris, Bruce and Rawiri are not the men's real names