Workers unloading or moving freight from shipping containers at British ports can be exposed to hazardous substances, such as fumigants and carbon monoxide, or be at risk of experiencing dangerously low oxygen levels, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has warned.
In a research report, the HSE said that, while there is limited evidence available of incidences of ill health and hospitalisation to workers at ports in Great Britain during the routine opening of shipping containers, and no fatalities have been reported so far, there had been incidents in Europe and further afield.
“Freight containers are confined spaces: they have limited or no ventilation in transit and hazardous atmospheres can build up inside,” it highlighted.
Health and safety
A build-up of toxic and flammable substances can occur, it warned. Chemical and/or microbiological activity within the cargo can also lead to oxygen deficiency.
The oxygen levels inside a container can become enriched or there can be a build-up of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide from ‘off-gassing’ organic matter, or microbiological activity.
Containers may also undergo fumigation, for example with phosphine or methyl bromide, prior to export. In addition, contents may become physically unstable following container transportation, the HSE also warned.
Some of these “hazardous atmospheres” had the potential to harm workers if breathed in, including the risk of asphyxiation and ill health, it added.
It was therefore vital employers had effective control measures in place to protect workers, it advised, pointing to its guidance and Approved Code of Practice for the Confined Spaces Regulations (1997).
“Measurements of the atmospheres inside freight containers at the volunteer sites found a wide range of toxic substances and low oxygen levels. The researchers identified a range of good practice control measures at the six ports,” the report argued.
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“Examples of good practice are training workers about the risks, and workers testing for hazardous substances in the atmosphere inside freight containers before entering them. The researchers did not find adequate safe systems of work at the two distribution centres. HSE is using these findings to inform engagement with the industry and local authority regulators,” HSE added.