Health & Safety Consultancy

HSE research finds potential for hazardous atmospheres in shipping containers

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has recently conducted a research report investigating the potential hazard of workers being overcome upon entry into shipping containers. They’ve found that these containers may contain hazardous substances or diminished oxygen levels.

They found a potential for exposure or asphyxiation in these containers during a range of site visits, as stated in their report:

During the site visits, a wide range of airborne substances including fumigants and/or reduced oxygen levels were measured in freight containers. There is potential for worker exposure to hazardous substances or asphyxiation when examining or unloading a container if effective control measures are not in place


The HSE did note some areas of good practice at ports, including:

  • The assumption that a toxic atmosphere is present inside the container and waiting to enter the container after opening the doors.
  • A progressive system of entry into the container, addressing any cargo capable of depleting oxygen and assessing the possible need to measure oxygen levels and specific hazardous substances.

Despite this, there were still some gaps in training and preparedness which they highlighted, including:

  • PPE: PPE selected in some cases was found to provide inadequate protection to workers from the substances and items contained within the containers.
  • RPE: RPE was found to have been issued without face fit testing having been undertaken, and some of the workers observed weren’t clean shaven which would have prevented a seal being made and therefore left the worker potentially exposed to the substances within the container.

Distribution centres

In contrast to the good practice highlighted by the HSE at port locations, and despite the fact almost identical risks are posed to distribution centres, a striking line in the report states that:

“In contrast to the ports, the distribution centres that participated in this research, did not have procedures or control measures in place which would protect workers from exposure to hazardous substances.”

Considerations for employers

In all cases where shipping containers are used, a risk assessment must be conducted, and control measures proportionate to the risks implemented. Controls may include:

  • Training and awareness for workers dealing with shipping containers and products (the level of risk, including the hazards of the items you regularly process, will determine the training required) – consider training workers to assume all containers may contain a hazardous atmosphere and therefore require ventilation prior to entry (the HSE determined that ventilating containers was an effective way of reducing overall likelihood of such an atmosphere).
  • Safe operating methods and procedures – to ensure that a considered and safe approach is taken to entry to areas where an oxygen depleted or toxic atmosphere may be present, including the potential for emergencies. Ensure that your workers are trained and familiar with these procedures, recording any such training and instruction.
  • Appropriate detection equipment as required – to indicate low-oxygen atmospheres and other potential contaminants where appropriate, including training on its use, calibration and maintenance.
  • Appropriate PPE and RPE – with selection depending on the product supplied and contained within the containers, including face fit testing where it is required for the RPE to function.

If you are a distribution centre, or regularly receive goods from shipping containers, please ensure that you review your current arrangements and implement additional controls where necessary.

There are further considerations contained within the research report, which can be read here.

Want further support?

If you’ve got any questions about how this research might affect your business – and how we can support you in making sure you’ve covered all considerations – you can call our Health & Safety team 24/7 on 0345 844 4848.

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