European Study on Fumigated Container Safety Published

Published: Thursday, July 5, 2018 - 18:11

The European Agency for Safety and Health has published a report titled:

Health risks and prevention practices during handling of fumigated containers in ports

Produced by the Department of Occupational Medicine and the Norwegian Centre for Maritime Medicine, Haukeland  University  Hospital,  Norway, the research findings are strongly consistent with our SiP industry guidance on the risks and approaches to safe container entry.  The analysed studies run from 2002 to 2013, typically from larger ports in Europe including the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Belgium and also from Australia and Sweden

There are several indications that the fumigation problem is underestimated, probably because of a lack of systematic documentation of incidents of adverse health effects.  

This is a useful piece of research that whilst it does not conduct any new studies, brings together international research and studies that have been conducted on the subject into one place. 

Summary Findings

Current position

  • Methyl bromide and phosphine are the main fumigants with significant acute and long-term health effects used in transport containers.   Other fumigants seen in smaller quantities include: Formaldehyde, Chloropicrin, Ethylene oxide and 1,2Dichloroethane.
  • Wide variance in exposure risk, with OEL exceeded in 0.4 to 3.5% of containers (Phosphine) and 0 to 21% (Methyl Bromide)
  • No consistent distribution of pesticides between types of cargo, except for Phosphine in foodstuffs.
  • Fumigated containers are almost never appropriately labelled because of the added cost of shipping.
  • Knowledge and awareness of the health risks among workers opening containers seem to be low
  • Workers unloading containers might be exposed to fumigants if they open containers that have not been checked and declared gas free.
  • So far, no reports of fatalities related to the opening of containers, but several reports describe adverse health effects in workers opening and unloading containers.
  • Monitoring instruments tend to indicate a potential peak exposure level for personnel opening the containers, rather than the average personal exposure measured in the breathing zone of the workers during unloading. 
  • Containers are often left to ventilate naturally, even though this is documented not to be efficient. Efficient forced extract ventilation is only available in a few locations.
  • Use of PPE is inconsistent and variable, and routines and guidelines on proper PPE are often lacking.
  • The decision on whether or not to use PPE seems to be left to workers, who may lack sufficient knowledge of the risk and level of protection needed.

Gaps in knowledge

  • No information about the proportion of containers that are actually opened by the various groups of workers in European ports, in warehouses and by the end-user is available.
  • No accessible reports on detailed risk assessments, including assessments of actual personal exposure to fumigants for relevant groups such as dock workers, warehouse workers or customs officers.
  • No obvious best indicators of fumigated containers when no labelling is present.
  • Likely that many near-accidents and intoxications with serious outcomes are not reported in public forums.
  • Responsibility for the training of workers opening containers needs clarification, especially when they are employed through a staffing agency.
  • Description of which type of PPE should be used is lacking.

It is a major problem that fumigated containers are almost never labelled

Priority recommendations:

  • Collective measures should be taken by national authorities, shippers, ship-owners, employee organisations and ports to enforce relevant regulations regarding labelling.
  • Containers should not be opened until risk assessment concludes that it is safe, for instance based on shipping documents or by approved measurement of the container atmosphere, if necessary after sufficient ventilation has been performed.
  • Develop a standardised screening/monitoring procedure that is able to identify at least Methyl Bromide and Phosphene, with sufficient sensitivity to quantify levels at one-tenth of the OEL or lower.


  • Relevant legislation and policy documents
  • Health and safety risks related to fumigated containers at port
  • Overview of relevant fumigants and potential health effects
  • Groups of workers potentially exposed to fumigants
  • Health effects among workers at port
  • Present procedures and practices
  • Risk communication systems, Risk assessment, Procedures and guidelines
  • Knowledge and awareness
  • Example of measurement strategies, leaflets/information sheets/cards
  • Identification of hazardous containers

  • Monitoring equipment and procedures
  • Degasification and ventilation technologies
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE)

(ISSN: 1831-9343)

See also:

confined Space Safety Video

sip 003 guidance safe container handling

sip015 guidance on confined spaces in ports

See also attached below a pdf of a presentation given by the authors of the report, summarising the findings.




OSH on fumigated containers in ports PDF (1.52 MB) Download (1.52 MB)
PPT Fumigated Containers EU-OSHA PDF (1015.75 KB) Download (1015.75 KB)