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April 16, 2018
Fumigants in shipping containers are hazardous to workers

Workers opening freight containers can be exposed to harmful levels of pesticides or fumigants that have been shipped to protect or preserve the contents of the containers. The hazard of worker exposure to these gases appears to be slipping under the radar in many nations, notes the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) in a recent report.

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“There are several indications that the fumigation problem is underestimated, probably because of a lack of systematic documentation of incidents of adverse health effects,” states the EU-OSHA. “It is a major problem that fumigated containers are almost never labelled and that current practices when opening and unloading these containers do not follow safe procedures based on appropriate risk assessments.”

The report recommends development of procedures for control measures, such as measurement technology/strategy, degasification/ventilation, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for various scenarios.

Methyl bromide a common fumigant

The report notes that a number of fumigants with significant acute and long-term health effects are used in transport containers, with methyl bromide (MeBr) and phosphine (PH3) currently the main ones. MeBr is a fumigant used against a wide variety of pests, including spiders, mites, fungi, plants, insects, nematodes, and rodents. PH3 has similar pest control uses. Ethylene oxide was also found in containers with medical equipment and devices, the EU-OSHA notes. Formaldehyde, chloropicrin, and 1,2-dichloroethane are also named as chemicals of concern in the report.

No fatalities reported

According to the EU-OSHA, workers might be exposed to fumigants if they open containers that have not been checked and declared gas-free. Employees of food inspection agencies or customs might also be exposed when opening containers for inspection. The report writers add that so far there have been no reports of fatalities related to the opening of containers.

“But several reports describe adverse health effects in workers opening and unloading containers,” says the EU-OSHA. “Several representatives of research institutions and regulatory bodies suggest that many near-accidents and toxin-related incidents with serious outcomes are not reported.”

OSHA’s port regs

OSHA regulations at 29 CFR 1917 (Marine Terminals) require that employers must determine the nature of any hazardous cargo, take precautions to prevent employee exposure, have the hazardous atmosphere tested by an appropriately equipped person, and instruct any person entering a space with a hazardous atmosphere of the hazard, precautions to be taken, and appropriate PPE.

The report notes that most containers are not opened at ports. However, OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires that employers furnish each employee with a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.

Risk assessment needed

As noted, the EU-OSHA is concerned about the dearth of information on actual exposure to hazardous gases in containers, including assessments of actual personal exposure to fumigants for relevant groups, such as dockworkers, warehouse workers, and customs officers. Accordingly, the top recommendation in the report is a call for a systematic exposure/risk assessment among potentially exposed groups of workers under various exposure scenarios.

Other entries in the lengthy list of recommendations include systematic surveillance of the prevalence of containers with fumigant residues arriving in ports; rigorous enforcement of regulations; a prohibition on opening a container until a risk assessment concludes that it is safe to do so; and adequate safety and PPE training for employees. The recommendation to remove fumigant gases from containers before they are opened is qualified by the understanding that because of the current design of shipping containers and the available testing and ventilation technologies, removal may be difficult without fully opening the container and risking some level of exposure to those in the area.

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