Study Shows Measures Needed to Protect Workers Opening Fumigated Containers

More than 600 million freight containers are shipped worldwide each year. To prevent damaging the goods, these containers are often treated with pesticides and other agents that have known toxic or irritant properties and can have long-term effects on the cardiovascular and central nervous systems.

A new study by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has reviewed the risks to workers when opening fumigated shipping containers. The report provides an overview of the current situation, including identifying gaps in preventative measures and recommending how to minimize the risks to workers' health and safety.

More than 600 million freight containers are shipped worldwide each year. To prevent damaging the goods, these containers are often treated with pesticides and other agents that have known toxic or irritant properties and can have long-term effects on the cardiovascular and central nervous systems. Port workers who open these containers can be exposed to these harmful agents, but standard health and safety measures and documentation to protect the workers have been introduced in only a few cases, it says.

The EU-OSHA report identifies a number of problems, including the following:

  • Fumigated containers are almost never labeled as fumigated.
  • Insufficient safety procedures are used when opening and unloading fumigated containers.
  • Appropriate risk assessments are not carried out.
  • A clear, standardized screening protocol to check for residual fumigants is needed.
  • Incidents of adverse health effects are under-reported.

In addition, the report includes several recommendations for preventative actions, strategies, and changes to improve the safety and health of the port workers in question:

  • Do not open containers until a risk assessment concludes that it is safe to do so. This could be based on shipping documents or approved measurements of the container atmosphere, if necessary after ventilating it.
  • Introduce adequate monitoring equipment and standardized screening procedures for fumigated containers. The tools used for screening should detect MeBr and PH3 (and other fumigants if possible) with sufficient sensitivity to accurately detect a level of at least 10 percent of the occupational exposure limit.
  • Enforce legislation regarding the labeling of fumigated containers. A uniform approach across European ports is needed to avoid competition at the expense of safety and health.
  • Identify containers that might pose a health risk to workers – clear, standard labeling is needed, including the use of symbols where there may be a language barrier.
  • Create and implement standard procedures for off-gassing and ventilating fumigated containers.
  • Distribute information packs offering guidance on personal protective equipment and risk assessment; these should be easily understandable to all workers who may be exposed to fumigated containers.

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