The disturbing death toll among stevedores who unload cargo from offshore barges may lead to the abolition of the important trade, a coroner has warned. Ian Thomas called for an urgent and wide-ranging inquiry into 'mid-stream cargo operations' to find a way of making them safe. 'The time has come when the question has to be asked as to whether even such an important component of Hong Kong's economic strength is worth the cost in human life which regularly occurs,' he said. Mr Thomas has called on the Government to come up with a safe system for the workers, who balance precariously on stacks of containers and frequently plunge to their deaths. 'If such a system cannot be devised, the Marine Department should consider whether mid-stream cargo handling should continue,' Mr Thomas said this week. There are 1,700 barges and 6,000 stevedores involved in mid-stream operations, which are 30 per cent cheaper than unloading in a cargo terminal. They dealt with three million containers last year, a quarter of Hong Kong's traffic. Mr Thomas made his comments after presiding over the latest inquest into the death of a stevedore. He said he had previously made suggestions aimed at preventing fatal accidents, including the use of safety belts, but the stevedoring industry appeared not to have regarded them as practical. 'Neither operators nor the workers themselves look upon safety as anything other than an inconvenient nuisance in the completion of their tasks,' he said. Mr Thomas said laws were needed to force the trade to improve safety. Even the University of Science and Technology had been called in, at his suggestion, to find a solution. But experts there had only advised that the barges could be made more stable. The Marine Department was seeking advice from consultants. Mr Thomas said a report should be obtained and acted on as soon as possible, or the trade might have to be abolished. He returned a verdict of accidental death on 58-year-old Wong Cho-tse, who slipped on a wet container at the Tsuen Wan public cargo handling area on February 6. Marine Department figures reveal that 31 stevedores have died in cargo-handling operations since 1994. There were 10 fatal accidents last year and three so far this year.