Protective Measures Needed for Workers Opening Fumigated Shipping Containers

A new European Agency for Safety and Health at Work study has reviewed the risks to workers who are exposed to fumigants when opening shipping containers[i].  The study identifies significant gaps in preventive measures and recommends improvements, which can reduce the health and safety risks faced by workers.

Freight containers are used worldwide as a means to transport cargo, with more than 600 million freight containers are shipped every year. Containers are often treated with pesticides to prevent damage to the contents and the spread of pests.  Common fumigants include phosphine, methyl bromide and formaldehyde.  These agents can have acute and long-term health effects.  Workers at ports, who are in the vicinity of the containers when they are opened, can be exposed to these agents. 

The reviewers sought information on the pesticides used, the frequency of fumigated containers arriving in European ports, the health effects on exposed workers and guidelines for handling fumigated containers.

The report found that the health risks have been underestimated.

Issues identified by the research, include:

  • Fumigated containers are almost never labelled as being fumigated;
  • Insufficient safety procedures exist for the opening and unloading fumigated containers;
  • Appropriate risk assessments are not carried out;
  • There is a lack of a clear, standardized screening protocol to check for residual fumigants;
  • Knowledge of health risks among workers opening containers is low;
  • Use of personal protective equipment is inconsistent and variable;
  • Few countries seem to have detailed and adequate guidelines on how to handle freight containers that may have been fumigated, although various organization and employers have guidelines or information sheets available;
  • Incidents of adverse health effects are under-reported. There is no systematic documentation of such effects;
  • Some containers have concentrations which exceed the occupational exposure limit. The proportion of containers affected by this varies between studies, ranging from between 0% and 3.5% in most studies, but was as high as 47.2% in one study.

A number of improvements could be made to improve the safety and health of workers at risk of exposure. These include:

  • Not opening containers until a risk assessment concludes that it is safe to do so. This could be based on shipping documents or measurements of the air inside the container, and the container may need to be ventilated;
  • Introducing adequate monitoring equipment and standardized screening procedures for fumigated containers. The methods of screening should be accurate enough to detect low levels of fumigant, e.g. 10% of the occupational exposure limit;
  • Enforcing legislation in respect of fumigated container labelling. A uniform approach across European ports is needed to avoid competition, at the expense of safety and health;
  • Identifying containers that could pose a risk to the health of workers, and using labelling that is clear and standard and can be understood in different languages.
  • Creating and implementing standard procedures for off-gassing (replacing the air) and ventilating fumigated containers;
  • Distributing information packs, offering guidance on personal protective equipment and risk assessment; these should be able to be understood by all workers who may be exposed to fumigated containers.


[i] Health risks and prevention practices during handling of fumigated containers in ports. Literature Review. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. 10 April 2018. (Accessed 12 April 2018)