All in a chilly day's work

All in a chilly day's work

Flowers, seafood and medicine are among the things stored in cold rooms at Sats Coolport and Coolchain

On a Wednesday morning in Changi, it is about 30 deg C outside, but some people are walking around in winter wear.

Milling around a single-storey building with a teal roof are workers clad in fleece jackets and hoodies and wearing gloves.

You almost check if you are still in Singapore. Yes, you are and this is Sats Coolport, the country's first and largest air-freight terminal dedicated to the handling of perishable cargo.

Set up by Sats in 2010, the $16.5-million centre has 18 cold rooms and four temperature zones to suit everything from flowers to fruit to meat to medicine stored there. The numerous rooms allow for different items to be separated, but remain in the same temperature zone. Last year, 240,000 tonnes of perishables have passed through its doors.

Ground service provider dnata Singapore also has a temperature-controlled perishable handling centre nearby, Coolchain, which opened in 2013. That 1,400 sq m centre can handle 75,000 tonnes of perishable cargo each year.

Temperatures inside Sats' 8,000 sq m cold storage facility range from minus 28 deg C to 25 deg C. For the 130 staff working there, it is much like being in a giant ice box.

The incongruous winter gear in local weather? Definitely necessary.

Products Sats Coolport's workers have handled include live lobsters, packed into boxes with dry ice; oysters from Australia; strawberries from South Korea; and Aomori apples from Japan, says

Ms Winnie Pang, 39, who heads Sats Coolport. Fresh Christmas trees are received here in December.

But over the last few weeks, more romantic cargo has been arriving. About 10,000 roses from Colombia have been shipped here in batches in time for Valentine's Day. This is the largest shipment of the thorned blooms ever to pass through Sats Coolport.

In a cold room, in temperatures between 2 and 8 deg C, employees unpack the flowers from boxes, soak them overnight in water and plant food, trim the roses' stems and rehydrate them by sticking their stems in water bulbs. Then they replace the blooms in their boxes. Once processed, the boxed roses are handed over to the florists who imported them.

Sats Coolport does not open cargo, unless customers request it to do so or to provide services such as replenishing of dry ice or repacking cargo, which might be going to different locations after storage. Coolchain also does not open products from customers.

About 4,000 stalks of these roses were ordered by Changi Airport Group to be used in two displays at Terminal 2: an installation which features two larger-than- life bouquets at the Enchanted Garden in the transit area and as part of a Disney display at the departure hall.

To the uninitiated, being in Sats Coolport and Coolchain's cold rooms turns your body and brain numb - even if you are in there for only 10 minutes.

Coming in, you are introduced to the cold in increments. You enter through a main room, with decent temperatures ranging between 15 and 19 deg C.

The temperature drops as you move from room to room. Your fingers stiffen. You exhale and your breath condenses in puffs before you. A regular coat is useless against the cold.

Cargo coordinators at Sats Coolport ensure workers do not stay more than 15 minutes in rooms colder than 2 deg C.

"It can affect your body because you're going straight into a cold place from the hot weather," says Mr Awtar Singh, 47, duty manager at Sats Coolport. "We try to encourage the guys to do warm-up exercises."

Over at Coolchain, where some items are stored in a minus 19 deg C freezer, icicles form on the shutters and the metal platforms over which goods are moved. Two minutes in the freezer and your nose will start running and your teeth, chattering.

Some workers do adapt to the environment.

Dressed in regular work clothes, Coolchain operation staff Arman Abdul Malek, 44, and Kaysaven Nadarajan, 24, duck in and out of the various cold rooms when they need to.

Mr Arman was dressed simply in a cotton polyester blend long-sleeve shirt while Mr Nadarajen had a vest over his short-sleeve shirt.

To keep warm, Coolchain staff are given a fleece pullover to wear as part of their uniform if they want to, but the two men dispense with them.

Having worked there for the past 11/2 years since the facility opened, they have acclimatised.

Mr Arman says: "Some of the guys who work 12-hour shifts here wear their safety vest over a short-sleeve shirt."

Like a pedantic chef or fussy housewife's dream, both men can rattle off the correct temperatures in which specific products much be stored. Live lobsters, for example, are stored at minus 1 or 0 deg C. Crocodile skins have to be stored at between 18 and 20 deg C.

Once, they received a frozen shipment that had to be stored at minus 60 deg C, the lowest temperature requirement they have encountered yet. The holding room's temperature was changed to accommodate that shipment.

Having such knowledge at their fingertips helps the men move things through the delivery chain more quickly.

The cargo is picked up from Changi Airport's passenger terminals and driven over to dnata's facility, which is about 10 minutes away.

Once there, the cargo is manually rolled onto a platform - built with hundreds of protruding castor wheels to make the process easier - to a checking area before they are taken to the right room.

They are then transferred into one of seven 36 sq m cold rooms. Each room is labelled in English, according to product type, with colour- coded doors to aid identification.

As many cargo planes land right behind Sats Coolport, chilled products are whisked almost immediately to their designated cold rooms.

Customers are notified when their items have arrived in Singapore. They then head to the Changi Airfreight Centre in Airline Road and clear the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (Air Checkpoints) there to enter the restricted area. From here, they head to Sats Coolport or Coolchain to pick up their goods.

With perishables, time is of the essence.

A flurry of activity ensues each time products arrive. Peak seasons for both facilities include festive periods such as Chinese New Year and Christmas.

Mr Arman says: "Many of the customers are usually on standby to get their goods, as they don't want to keep them in storage for long either. So we don't have to worry about getting backed up."

On Wednesday's visit to Coolchain, I watch as a delivery of fresh Atlantic salmon is taken there directly off the plane. Someone from Tat Hong Fishery in Jurong is already waiting to load the boxes onto his truck. He pops open one of the styrofoam boxes to reveal at least four of the large fish, surrounded by ice cubes.

As you watch him drive away with his catch of the day into the blistering afternoon heat, suddenly the frosty rooms seem like a very inviting option.

This article was first published on Feb 14, 2015.
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