01/12/2022

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Guideline for Unpacking and Inspecting Containers Safely

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Harmful substances in transported goods, or chemicals used to fumigate containers can make workers inspecting or unpacking those containers sick. Care must be taken when workers inspect or unpack containers that may have been fumigated or may contain harmful substances.

In this article, We have produced guidance for those who inspect or unpack containers.

This guidance provides advice to persons conducting a business or undertaking on how to protect workers from harmful substances while unloading or inspecting containers.

To stop pests or diseases from entering the Worksite, some containers are fumigated. Containers may contain high enough levels of the fumigant to make workers inspecting or unpacking (devanning) them seriously unwell either quickly (acute) or over a long period of time (chronic). Other harmful substances (called ‘off- gases’) may be present inside containers because of the goods being transported or packaging used.

Containers Safety

What fumigants might be used?

The fumigant used depends on the goods inside the container and which country the container comes from. The most commonly used fumigants are methyl bromide and phosphine.

Table 1 ( Download ) provides information about four common fumigants: methyl bromide, phosphine, hydrogen cyanide, and chloropicrin.

What other Substances may be inside the Containers?

Harmful off-gases, such as volatile organic compounds, may be inside containers. Off-gases come from the goods being transported and include but are not limited to formaldehyde, toluene, benzene, carbon monoxide, xylene, and heptane.

Table 2 ( Download ) provides information about common off-gases.

In this fact sheet, the phrase ‘harmful substances’ refers to:

  • the leftover fumigant that remains in the container after fumigation and/or
  • off-gases.

What can you do before you inspect or unpack a container?

Persons conducting a business or undertaking ( PCBUs ) have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers, and that others are not put at risk from their work. Risks must be eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable. If a risk can’t be eliminated, it must be minimized so far as is reasonably practicable.

What can you do before you inspect or unpack a container?

PCBUs have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers, and that others are not put at risk from their work. Risks must be eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable. If a risk can’t be eliminated, it must be minimized so far as is reasonably practicable.

PCBUs must monitor workplace conditions and worker health, so far as is reasonably practicable, if exposure to a particular health risk warrants it (eg you are not certain on reasonable grounds whether your workers are being exposed to a substance above its workplace exposure standard level).

This guidance provides advice for PCBUs on how exposure monitoring can be carried out to minimize the risk to workers from harmful substances while unloading or inspecting contain1ers.

For advice about exposure monitoring contact an experienced occupational health professional such as an occupational hygienist.

The good practice process

Step by Step process

Figure 1 summarises a step-by-step process PCBUs may follow when unloading or inspecting containers.

This process involves first checking for harmful levels of substances inside containers (workplace monitoring) before workers enter. If harmful levels of substances are found, containers should be ventilated until they are safe to enter. These steps are explained more fully in this section.

Seek your workers’ views when deciding how to eliminate or minimize risks. Give preference to control measures that protect multiple people at once.

You must ensure that workers are supervised or trained to be healthy and safe at work.

good Practice
FIGURE 1: Good practice for safely entering shipping containers (using a device to identify and measure harmful substances)
How to check Container’s Paperwork

Check the container’s Paperwork

Use the container’s paperwork to try to find out:

  • if the container has been fumigated and if so, what fumigant was used
  • what goods are being transported?

Is there evidence that the container has been fumigated?

Whether a container is fumigated, and what fumigant could be used depends on the goods inside it and which country it comes from.

Check for fumigation warning notices or other documents that may come with the container. If you are looking for evidence of fumigation, you may notice differences depending on whether the container was fumigated here or overseas. Do not assume that a container has not been fumigated simply because there is no fumigation signage on the outside.

For containers fumigated in local fumigation companies:

  • There will be a sign on the container warning that it has been fumigated.
  • Containers will have been ventilated – but because the fumigant will continue to be released from goods and packaging, there will likely still be fumigant and off-gases in them.

For containers fumigated before entering :

There may be no warning signs on the container or anything in the container’s paperwork to show that it has been fumigated.

Fumigant and off-gases may be inside the container.

What goods are being transported?

Some goods, including plastic and wood products or packaging, can release off-gases. It depends on what the goods are made of and how they are made.

For example, some medium-density fibreboard (MDF) furniture may release formaldehyde gas. This depends on how it was cured in the manufacturing process.

While it’s important to know what goods are inside the container, you must not rely on this alone to judge whether off-gases could be inside the container.

What should you do next?

See Figure 1 for the next steps.

How to check if there are harmful substances inside the container

Check if there are harmful substances inside the container. If there are, try to identify which one(s)

Test the air inside for harmful substances before entering the container. Do not sniff the air inside the container to try to work out if harmful substances are present this is dangerous

Fumigants

Workers who test for harmful substances must be trained to use the testing equipment and interpret the results.

It is safest to test for harmful substances without opening the container. You can do this by inserting the sampling tube between the rubber seals of the door to sample the air inside the container. You will not usually need to wear safety gear to do this.

Be careful – the levels of gases may vary inside the container. For example, pockets of gas may be trapped inside or between the cargo.

If you need to open the door to sample the air, the person carrying out the testing should wear an appropriate respirator for which the person has been fit tested.

An appropriate respirator is likely to be:

  • a half or full face mask equipped with either a multi-gas filter or an organic vapor cartridge filter or
  • Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA).

To work out which one to use, you could talk to a respirator provider or look at WorkSafe’s fact sheet Respiratory Protective Equipment – Advice for Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking. There are duties for PCBUs when respiratory protective equipment is used to minimize risks (including training requirements). See the above guidelines for information about this.

If you detect substances inside containers, try to identify what they are.

What should you do next?

See Figure 1 for the next steps.

Hazardous Chemical Storage

How to check how much harmful substance is inside the container

Check how much harmful substance is inside the container

You should check the amounts of harmful substance(s) you identified inside the container to work out if it is safe for workers to enter and unpack/inspect.

However, if you decide not to take measurements and the presence of fumigants or off-gases cannot be discounted, the container should be well ventilated. The use of mechanical ventilation is recommended.

Workers who test for harmful substances must be trained to use the testing equipment and to interpret the results.

Tables 1 and 2 outlines the testing equipment recommended for measuring the amounts of specific fumigants or off-gases.

It is safest to carry out this testing without opening the container. If you need to open the door to get an air sample, you should wear an appropriate respirator (see the previous section).

Be careful – the levels of gases may vary inside the container. The levels may be higher than what is measured by the door. You may not detect all of the substances that could be inside the container.

For workers to safely enter the container, the amount of the harmful substance inside the container should be well below the workplace exposure standard (WES) value for the substance (see Appendices 1 and 2).

AWES for a substance refers to the airborne concentration of a substance to which it is believed nearly all workers can be repeatedly exposed day after day without coming to harm. Compliance with the WES level does not guarantee that all workers are protected from discomfort or ill-health. The range of individual susceptibility to hazardous and toxic substances is wide, and it is possible that some workers will experience discomfort or develop work-related diseases from exposure to substances at levels below the WES. So PCBUs should aim to have airborne concentrations well below the WES value.

What should you do next?

See Figure 1 for the next steps.

Photo of the day: Read All Labels Work safe

How to ventilate the container

ventilate the container and re-test the air inside the container. Repeat if needed

The container must be ventilated (aired out) until the level of the harmful substance drops. The container can be aired out naturally (natural ventilation), or by using fans or extractor units (mechanical ventilation).

Natural ventilation takes longer than forced ventilation. It is difficult to predict how long it will take to naturally ventilate a container as it depends on:

  • the levels of harmful substances inside the container
  • how tightly the container is packed
  • the contents of the container (as some gases will absorb into the contents, these will be released more slowly).

When you decide what type of ventilation to use you should consider if there are any risks that may arise.

For example, if the container is inside a building with limited airflow, natural ventilation may cause harmful substances to accumulate outside the container which could be hazardous to other workers or bystanders.

Set up barricades and signs around the container’s entrance before ventilating the container.

After ventilation, re-test the air inside the container. Wear an appropriate respirator if you enter the container.

If the container is tightly packed, partially unpack the container, air it out, and then retest the air inside the container before continuing with the unpacking/ inspection.

If you need to close up the container after ventilation:

  • place a notice on the container stating that ventilation has occurred
  • keep a record of what you have done.

Photo of the day: Dangerous Goods Classes(

If someone shows symptoms of exposure

If workers or bystanders show symptoms of exposure you should follow the site’s emergency procedures.

Symptoms of exposure to common fumigants and off-gases are listed in Tables 1 and 2.

Emergency procedures should describe where the exposed person should be moved to, what immediate first aid should be given, how to seek medical

advice, and how to prevent others from being exposed to the harmful substance (eg barriers, signs).

It may not be safe to enter or go near the container without a breathing apparatus. Ask emergency services or a local fumigation company for advice. After exposure to a harmful substance (through skin absorption, inhalation or ingestion), WorkSafe must be notified under certain circumstances

OHS Department

must be notified if the person is exposed:

  • is admitted to the hospital as an in-patient for immediate treatment
    • requires immediate treatment (other than first aid) for:
    • amputation
    • serious head injury
    • serious eye injury
    • serious burn
    • separation of skin from the underlying tissue
    • spinal injury
    • loss of bodily function (including loss of consciousness)
    • serious lacerations
  • requires medical treatment within 48 hours of the exposure.

When should worker health be monitored?

Even if you follow good practices, workers who routinely deal with containers that have been fumigated or carry goods known to produce off-gases may still be exposed to harmful substances.

You have a primary duty to monitor worker health, so far as is reasonably practicable if exposure to a particular health risk warrants it.

Health monitoring is a way to check if the health of workers is being harmed from exposure to hazards while carrying out work, and aims to detect early signs of ill-health or disease. Health monitoring can show if control measures are working effectively. Monitoring does not replace the need for control measures to minimize or prevent exposure.

Talk to your workers to get their views before making decisions about health monitoring.

For advice about health monitoring contact an experienced occupational health professional.

Note: You should consider whether your workers should undergo biological exposure monitoring. This is a type of exposure monitoring, not health monitoring. Biological exposure monitoring involves qualified professionals taking samples, like blood or urine, from workers, and looking for the harmful substance. This can be used to check if workers are being exposed to substances such as methyl bromide, toluene, xylene, and carbon monoxide.

Read more about Pesticides & fumigants Exposure

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