Cargo Containers

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Hans-Peter Froehlich, BGHW Berufsgenossenschaft Handel und Warendistribution


Introduction

Global trade is largely executed by way of freight containers. The use of these containers revolutionised global transportation. The opening and unloading of containers is connected with various safety and also health hazards to workers who open up and unload containers in ports or inland.

Extensive measurements performed furnish evidence that about 20 % of import containers including their freight contain critical concentrations of air pollutants. These are in particular volatile hydrocarbons and fumigants, for example phosphine, and methyl bromide.

A distinction must be made between fumigants like methyl bromide or phosphine and industrial chemicals like toluene/xylene or aliphatic hydrocarbons emitted by the goods [1][2][3][4][5][6].

Images 1 and 2: Unloading of a container ship and handling of containers in the harbour

‘‘‘Figure 1: Unloading of a container ship’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW

‘‘‘Figure 2:Handling of containers in the harbour’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW


Nature of the problem

ISO-Container loads of various kinds are and sometimes have to be fumigated to protect them against vermin, they may emit gases used during manufacturing or be treated subsequently in order to reduce corrosion or mould infestation. In particular the workers opening up import containers, inspecting their contents, and unloading them can be at risk. Even if a container has already been ventilated, out-gassings, for example from goods or packaging materials, can again accumulate within the container after several hours.

Many fumigants as well as pollutants or industrial chemicals are odourless, or their odour can be masked by other odours, and can therefore only be detected by special measurements. Nonetheless, most of these containers are not subject to particular labelling requirements . Fumigated ISO-Containers should normally be labelled. They need to be accordingly marked on the outside with a sticker which states : DANGER FUMIGATION. This also needs to be indicated in the transport documents.

Recipients of import containers must, according to the results of a study carried out in Hamburg in 2007, expect that about two percent of import containers have been fumigated or have not been labelled or their labels have been removed too early. In a further 15 percent of all containers, other hazardous gas rests – industrial chemicals – are contained in the load [7][8][9].


Fumigants

Fumigants such as methyl bromide, which is prohibited in the EU (ozone depletion),, hydrogen cyanide, phosphorus hydride, sulfuryl difluoride etc. are chemical substances with toxic or very toxic properties which are applied specifically to control vermin in buildings, rooms and containers. Their toxicity and high penetration capability even into packaging and goods guarantee a high efficiency level. Sometimes combinations of fumigants are used for certain applications. Fumigants must be specifically approved for each kind of application.

The most common fumigants are methyl bromide, sulfuryl fluoride, hydrogen cyanide, phosphine, ethylene oxide and formaldehyde. The application of the various fumigants depends on the target they are intended to combat. Formaldehyde, phosphine and methyl bromide are often found in fumigated import containers. When the transport material consists of wood, what will be found most likely is methyl bromide, which is very efficient in combating wood pests and most moulds. The use of methyl bromide is almost entirely prohibited. Apart from the above-mentioned fumigants, carbonyl sulfide, chloropicrin and carbon disulphide are also used as fumigants internationally.

Generally, fumigants applied to fumigation objects can only be removed by controlled ventilation. Since fumigants penetrate deeply into cavities during the fumigation process, i.e. also into packaging and goods, thorough and safe ventilation is required in tightly sealed containers.

A major part of the fumigants applied gets lost through leaks during the fumigation time, i.e., in the case of containers, during transportation. Taped ventilation grids and sealing lips are intended to prevent losses. When opening-up well-sealed containers, very high and hazardous concentrations of fumigants can therefore still be present. If little tin boxes are found when opening a container, for example between the pallets, the container has most likely been fumigated with methyl bromide! Grey powder on packagings or the container base hint at phosphine, and hydrogen cyanide is released from flat, brownish tablets which may be scattered unsystematically within the container.

Inspection, further transport or unloading of a fumigated container must be authorized by a qualified fumigation expert holding a certificate of competence, and a corresponding authorization certificate must be issued [10][11][12][13].


Industrial chemicals

Apart from fumigants, further gaseous chemicals are detected in import containers in toxicologically critical concentrations. These are chemical substances stemming mainly from the transported products. They are generally also referred to as industrial chemicals. Ammonia, benzene, butadiene, 1,2-dichloroethane, carbon dioxide, styrene, hydrogen sulphide, toluene, xylene, aldehydes, esters and ketones have been detected.

Some of the substances found appear in concentrations which are harmful to health, some have a carcinogenic potential. When carrying out risk assessment for activities at and in import containers, it is therefore important not to turn one’s attention to a possible occurrence of fumigants alone. While fumigated containers are subject to labelling obligations, such obligations do not exist for other hazardous substances in containers. Here, furthermore, the fumigation regulations of the different countries cannot be applied.

In spite of this, employers have to fulfil the requirements of the Hazardous Substances Ordinance, since their employees may be exposed to a variety of health hazards from chemical substances.

Findings in the Netherlands and Germany show that imported shoes and textiles from Southeast Asia in particular are frequently contaminated by outgassing pollutants, followed by furniture and household items. Transport units containing medicinal products or foodstuffs are less often contaminated.


Biological hazards

Under suitable living conditions, moulds can appear on products during transportation, in particular if the products consist of organic material like for example wood.

The collective term of „moulds“ comprises numerous types of fungi. Under certain conditions, these rapidly infest the wood inside of containers and produce numerous particulate spores on the wood surface. These are visually identifiable as a cotton-like, filamentous or powdery propagation of the fungus which can occur in different colours. Fungal spores which can be whirled up when opening the container door and in particular when removing fungus-infected material from the container can enter the human body through inhalation or damaged skin areas and have a detrimental effect on the body.

Fungi invariably have an allergenic potential which can lead to sensitizing after longer term and intensive contact. The main effects occur in the lungs and respiratory passages. Workers with weakened immune systems, for example due to chronic diseases or after the intake of immunosuppressive drugs, should take particular care to avoid exposure to prevent the outbreak of a very rare but potentially serious infection by moulds. Moulds can also have toxic effects, namely through mycotoxins, i.e. metabolites of moulds which can be released into the environment, and through cell wall components. Some mycotoxins even have a carcinogenic effect when entering the human body, and sometimes also when inhaled.

Protective measures ) must consider absorption through the respiratory channels and the skin as well as through foodstuffs which may be contaminated by moulds stemming from the infested goods.

Suppliers should be required to use dry wood for packaging or transport protection in order to avoid fungal infestation.

If fungus infested material has been detected, the measures in line with the hierarchy of control measures defined in Directive 2000/54/EC should be taken. In Germany for example the Technical Rule for Biological Agents (TRBA 500) provides detailed guidance as far as general hygienic measures are concerned.

Particle filtering respiratory protection is the adequate personal protective equipment [Personal Protective Equipment RO-11-06-3 " Chemical protective clothing against chemical and biological hazards" to be used here. It should at least belong to particle filter class 2. Where gaseous hazardous substances occur at the same time, a combination filter is necessary. When respiratory protection is used, the maximal wearing time must be observed [14][15][16][17][18].

‘‘‘Figure 3: Moldy wood packaging’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW


Measurement

If there are doubts as to whether a container is contaminated with hazardous substances, the container must be examined by qualified personnel on behalf of the employer or transportation contractor before it may be opened and entered. This usually involves the drafting of a contamination report which specifies measures to be taken in the case of increased contamination with hazardous substances. Such measures include for example active ventilation over a certain minimum period of time and adequate personal protective equipment. With respect to fumigants, special approval by competent fumigation experts is required.

· Why do I have to carry out measurements?

· How can measurements be taken?

· And what can be measured?

If formerly fumigated containers are measured freely after ventilation by competent personnel, such measurements can be carried out with the help of specific measuring tubes. These tubes may however exhibit cross-sensitivities in some cases. They nevertheless constitute the most favourable device for obtaining short-term information on a certain substance within a container.

Photoionization detectors provide cumulative values only. Specific information concerning the substances found within the container cannot be obtained. Photoionization detectors usually detect aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons which are used in various industrial processes and may later be released in containers.

For certain gases like ammonia or phosphines, chemical sensors are available which can also be used as combination devices. Here, too, the range of performance is limited to certain kinds of substances, like for example fumigants.

Some customs authorities use measuring devices which enable inspection bodies to decide whether a container may be entered or not. Here, the measurement principle is based on a separation of the individual substances due to their mobility.

Detailed information about substances in containers can be obtained by gas chromatographic systems connected to a mass spectrometer. These systems provide the widest possible range of information on harmful substances to be found in containers at present. These sytems are very expensive and therefore the measurements are carried out regularly by the contractors.

It can generally be assumed that ventilation of containers will lead to a quick decrease in the concentration of harmful substances in the area of the container doors. It must also be assumed however that, especially in the rear of containers, residues of fumigants or industrial chemicals may accumulate, in particular in 40-foot containers. Only mechanical ventilation or a longer ventilation time can reduce harmful substances here.

Measurements should always be preceded by reasonable measurement planning since each measurement technique has advantages and disadvantages [19][20][21][22][23].

Images 4 and 5: Measurements with tubes and inside of the container

‘‘‘Figure 4: Measurements with tubes’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW

‘‘‘Figure 5: Measurements inside the container’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW


Legislation

According to, health and safety legislation , employers have to carry out a risk assessment and lay out prevention measures. They also have to train and inform their workers, and define for specific tasks who and under which conditions they are being carried out (e.g. opening containers, carrying out measurements). Some countries have set specific rules for the protection of workers from fumigants, or published guidance documents (e.g. Germany and the Netherlands). In Germany, the Hazardous Substances Ordinance establishes in Annex III (5) “Fumigation” special regulations for fumigation activities which are specified in several Technical Rules for Hazardous Substances (TRGS). For fumigation and handling (including ventilation and release) of containers, TRGS 512 “Fumigations” is of special significance [24][25].

Different specific international rules and recommendations concerning the handling of fumigated containers are available addressing different perspectives and target groups. Important examples are:

Recommendations by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), e.g. Recommendations on the safe use of pesticides in ships”, which are available on the IMO web site [26]. Another important source of information regarding fumigated containers is part 7.4.3 “Part Fumigated units” of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG). This rather comprehensive regulation is also available on the IMO website. Also the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provides recommendations about fumigation in different situations. In Germany, in addition to general legislation concerning the handling and placing on the market of chemicals, two main regulations are available which regulate specifically the handling of fumigated containers.


Health risks from fumigated ship containers

Longer exposure to fumigants and industrial chemicals, for example during the unloading of containers or the reloading or storing of goods can lead to varied health problems.. Clearly predominant in this context are unspecific ailments like headaches, poor concentration, indisposition, nausea, irritations of the conjunctiva and the skin. Extensive clinical examinations have provided evidence for disorders of the nervous system, including the brain, and of the respiratory tract. Due to the often slow beginning of such disorders, it is not always possible for those affected to identify the exposure that has caused their illness.

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment had recorded 71 events up until September 2008. Contact with methyl bromide had been detected most frequently. A high number of unrecorded cases must be presumed [27][28][29].


Prevention

Potential exposure to fumigants in containers should be identified and managed as part of normal health and safety measures for all workers involved in unloading or accessing cargo in containers. This means: • carrying out a risk assessment before opening a container • identifying the likely presence of a fumigant in the container using appropriate safety precautions.(http://extranet.osha.europa.eu/12103/1071103/1071424/ero_10_06-a-f/ero-10-06a-osh-management-systems/ero-10-06a-final-articles/2011_04_19_ero_10_06_a_10_management_risk_governance_final.doc/view ) The following checklist should at least be worked through before opening and unloading an import container [30]:

  • Is the container loaded with freight which is likely to be contaminated with chemicals?
  • Have identical or comparable loads been delivered to the company premises in the past?
  • Which experiences have been made with these loads and where can they be retrieved?
  • Which protective measures have been implemented during unloading in the past?
  • Are measuring instruments available or is competent support needed to carry out measurements?

If the results of this check show that the container load in question is contaminated with chemicals, the container should be handled in the same way as a fumigated container. It should be opened only under the guidance of a competent person who is able to identify and assess potential hazards for workers and third persons and to arrange for the necessary protective measures.

It is recommended to use a systematic approach when handling containers. Containers can for example be divided up into various groups depending on their supplier, their country of origin and their contents. Each group will be assigned a certain course of action in order to minimize hazards. A container received from a new supplier from Asia containing goods in wooden packaging could for example be allocated to a high-risk group. Such containers will have to be analyzed with respect to pollutants before entering them. Containers transporting goods which are normally not fumigated and where experience has shown that they do not outgas industrial chemicals constitute a low risk. There is, however, no ideal way of dealing with containers. The handling of containers must be adapted to the respective conditions at the recipient [31][32][33][34][35][36].

For recipients, the easiest and most reliable policy is to demand that containers and goods be delivered in degassed condition (e. g. after degassing in the country of origin) already when ordering the products.

Another practicable and easy solution for recipients of goods which do not need fumigation is to insist that the sender will use only heat-treated woods for packaging, dunnage bars and pallets (which carry a „HT“ labelling in accordance with ISPM , see image), avoiding the risks of fumigation all together.

Image 6 and 7: Heat-Treated woods for packaging and Methybromid-Treated Woods for packaging

‘‘‘Figure 6: Wood heat treated’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW

‘‘‘Figure 7: Wood treated with methylbromide’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW


Image 8 and 9: Ventilation slits of the transport unit glued together or sealed. Inside and outside of the container

‘‘‘Figure 8: Ventilation slits glued inside the container’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW

‘‘‘Figure 9: Ventilation slits glued outinside the container’’’

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Source: Hans-Peter Fröhlich, BGHW

If a transport container is known to be fumigated (documents, labelling) or is highly suspected to be fumigated, The container should only be opened by personnel in possession of a certificate of competency. If in doubt, the transport container is to be treated as if it were fumigated.

As a general rule, it should be prohibited to open or enter fumigated containers . But even fumigated containers which have been ventilated in the country of exportation and are therefore transshipped unlabelled may not be safe, because goods und packaging material may subsequently be emitting fumigants? . Degassing of single items wrapped in foil can take several days, even if ventilated. When handling containers, in particular those coming from Asia, transport documents and container labels have to be checked in order to determine whether fumigation has been applied: Has an authorization certificate been issued? If so, may the container be entered and unloading begin? An essential protective measure when handling containers is to carry out a visual inspection. Of major importance in this context is to check whether the ventilation slots are sealed. Nowadays, ventilation slots are often sealed from within the container. Are the container’s sealing lips taped together? Are there labelling residues on the container which hint at fumigation? If it cannot ultimately be excluded that a container still contains fumigants, it may not be entered. A superior must be informed.

If hints at fumigation (sealed ventilation slots, rests of fumigants) are found only after opening the container, the container must be closed again and safeguarded against unauthorized entry. A superior must be informed.

If containers are not or no longer contaminated with fumigants, either because no fumigation had been applied or because appropriate ventilation has been carried out, it is nevertheless possible that industrial chemicals accumulate within the container (see 2.2 Industrial chemicals). If a typical solvent-like odour is perceived when opening a container, the container must be ventilated sufficiently before unloading. Sufficient ventilation (for at least 30 minutes) before entering a container considerably reduces health risks. At present, no generally applicable strategy for hazard identification is available for simple, quick and, first of all, safe identification of potential hazards. Common, concerted efforts in research, industry and practice are necessary in order to advance the level of know-how. . On 22 and 23 October 2009 the Dutch Inspectorate SZW organised a conference for the European Labour Inspectorates (Senior Labour Inspectors Committee, SLIC) on the dangers of fumigated containers. 40 participants were present, among whom representatives of the Labour Inspectorates of 12 EU member states, the European Commission and the European Agency in Bilbao. Several national approaches were presented. The participants discussed possible ways forward to better protect workers and monitor exposures. The results are available on the internet. Several countries have conducted national inspection and awareness raising campaigns [37].

At present, no generally applicable strategy for hazard identification is available for simple, quick and, first of all, safe identification of potential hazards. Common, concerted efforts in research, industry and practice are necessary in order to advance the level of know-how. . On 22 and 23 October 2009 the Dutch Inspectorate SZW organised a conference for the European Labour Inspectorates (Senior Labour Inspectors Committee, SLIC) on the dangers of fumigated containers. 40 participants were present, among whom representatives of the Labour Inspectorates of 12 EU member states, the European Commission and the European Agency in Bilbao. Several national approaches were presented. The participants discussed possible ways forward to better protect workers and monitor exposures. The results are available on the internet. Several countries have conducted national inspection and awareness raising campaigns.


Conclusion

In order to find a solution for the handling of containers contaminated with hazardous substances, it is ultimately necessary to find a European or, even better, a global basis to ensure safe loading in the exporting countries, safe transportation and safe unloading in the importing countries, which should guarantee the protection of workers inside as well as outside of Europe. Where fumigation is necessary, it should be reduced to a minimum. With respect to production, particular efforts should be made to ensure that the goods produced do not afterwards become a source of emissions (industrial chemicals). All along the supply chain, transparent information on production, transportation conditions and unloading make it possible to protect workers against harmful effects. Not only the importing, but also the exporting of goods into countries outside the European Union should only take place in such a way that employees working in the area of loading and unloading are not put at risk[38][39][40][41][42].

References

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  40. Amt für Arbeitschutz Hamburg, Abfertigung von Importcontainern (2012). Retrieved 29 October 2012, from: http://www.hamburg.de/contentblob/125468/data/m52-pdf.pdf.
  41. Suidmann, D., Houweling F., Bonewit, J., Handbook Toxic Gases and Vapours in Cargo, NT Publishers B.V., Rotterdam, 2010.
  42. Low, A., Hüsing, U.P., Preisser, A., Baur, X., 'Regulations and control of in-transit fumigated containers as well as of fumigated cargo ships', International Maritime Health, Vol. 54, No 1-4, 2003, pp. 77-85. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14974780.

Links for further reading

Low, A., Hüsing, U.P., Preisser, A., Baur, X., 'Regulations and control of in-transit fumigated containers as well as of fumigated cargo ships', International Maritime Health, Vol. 54, No 1-4, 2003, pp. 77-85. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14974780.

Preisser, A.M., Budnik, L.T., Hampel, E., Baur, X., 'Surprises perilous: toxic health hazards for employees unloading fumigated shipping containers', The Science of the Total Environment, Vol. 409, No 17, 2011, pp. 3106-3113. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21636109.

Inspectie SZW (Inspectorate SZW), Project fumigated Containers Report A870 (2009). Retrieved 29 October 2012, from: http://www.inspectieszw.nl/Images/Project_fumigated_ontainers_Report_A870_tcm335-312329.pdf.

Inspectie SZW - Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, Omgaan met gassen in importcontainers (2012). Retrieved 09 November 2012, from: http://www.inspectieszw.nl/Images/Omgaan%20met%20gassen%20in%20importcontainers_tcm335-312301.pdf.

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Transport sector social partners campaign against toxic gases (2012). Retrieved 29 October 2012, from: http://osha.europa.eu/en/news/be-transport-sector-social-partners-campaign-against-toxic-gases.

Zentralinstitut für Arbeitsmedizin und Maritime Medizin und Universitätsprofessur für Arbeitsmedizin, Begasungsmittelrückstände in Importcontainern - eine sicherheitstechnische und arbeitsmedizinische Herausforderung (2012). Retrieved 29 October 2012, from: http://www.uke.de/institute/arbeitsmedizin/index_14284.php.

Scholes, E., van Putten, E. M., The dispersal of fumigants around ocean shipping containers, National Institute for Public Health and the Enviroment (RIVM), Bilthoven, 2007. Available at: http://www.rivm.nl/bibliotheek/rapporten/609021041.pdf.

Inspectie SZW - Ministerie van Sociale Zaken en Werkgelegenheid, Fumigated containers, SLIC international approach (2009). Retrieved 09 November 2012, from: http://www.inspectieszw.nl/english/publications/fumigatedcontainersslicinternationalapproach.aspx.