The recent death of a worker inside a shipping container during container unloading highlights the inherent risks of loading and unloading shipping containers. WorkSafe Victoria convicted and fined Carrum Downs truck-body manufacturer Prestige Trucks (Aust) Pty Ltd $225,000 after a manager was crushed and killed inside a shipping container, in breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) (1). The company pleaded guilty to a single charge of failing to provide or maintain safe systems of work so far as was reasonably practicable, as required by section 21 of the Act(2).
The court heard that in its production process, the company used fibreglass and particle board panels that arrived at the workplace in shipping containers, packed in a manner that meant they could only be unloaded manually. In January 2020, five workers, including the manager, were emptying stacks of panels weighing more than 3.5 tonnes in total from a container. The panels had not been securely packed and had become loose in transit. As the first panel was being removed, several others fell and crushed the manager against the container wall.
The court found it was reasonably practicable for the company to have implemented a system of work that required the supplier to pack panels in a manner that would allow them to be unloaded using machinery, such as a forklift, and to return any containers that were not packed in this manner, in compliance with the Safe Work Australia’s Code of Practice on managing the risks of plant in the workplace . WorkSafe Executive Director of Health and Safety Narelle Beer said the risks of removing heavy loads from shipping containers are well-known and encouraged employers to ensure they implement a safe system of work.
“Once a load begins to fall, there’s often no opportunity to escape for anyone inside a container, and the consequences are all too often deadly. Duty holders should never allow workers to attempt to unload a shipping container that has not been safely packed, and WorkSafe will continue to prosecute those who put workers in harm’s way,” Beer said.
Managing risks when working in shipping containers
To manage risks when unloading containers, employers and workers should:
- Assess potential risks from the unloading process, mainly if there are large, heavy items or a number of smaller items that could form a mass significant to crush a human body.(7)
- Consult with the supplier on the potential loading implications and define the best shipping configuration for ease and safety of unloading.
- Have a documented system of work for safe unloading that includes defining a safe sequence of unloading and if the load can be safely unloaded.
- Ensure that all workers are trained in the system of work.
- Ensure that the container is sitting level to reduce the risk of panels, slabs, or other objects becoming unstable and toppling.
- Before opening or releasing transport restraints, workers must consider whether a container door safety strap or appropriate load-rated equipment to prop or support contents that may have shifted is needed to prevent toppling. Workers are also advised to ensure that no one is in the fall shadow of any object at any time and to use equipment to minimise workers’ interaction with contents. Any engineering controls, such as additional load restraints, must be introduced from outside the fall shadow.
Workers should also ensure that lifting gear, such as shackles, cables and clamps, is regularly checked by a competent or licensed person in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions and the Australian Standard AS 1418.1-2002, Cranes, hoists and winches – General requirements ; they should also ensure that any forklift being used has the appropriate load rating for all fitted attachments and is being used as intended, in compliance with the Australian Standard AS 2359.2-2013, Powered industrial trucks – Operation and maintenance .
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 Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic). Retrieved from https://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/in-force/acts/occupational-health-and-safety-act-2004/016
 Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic), Section 21
 Safe Work Australia. (2016). Code of Practice – Managing the Risks of Plant in the Workplace.
 Standards Australia. (2004). AS 4991-2004: Lifting devices.
 Standards Australia. (2002). AS 1418.1-2002: Cranes, hoists and winches – General requirements.
 Standards Australia. (2013). AS 2359.2-2013: Powered industrial trucks – Operation and maintenance.
 It is generally accepted that static weights >450kg can cause severe crush injuries if applied to the head, neck, chest or abdomen. However, weights below this amount have also resulted in catastrophic consequences. Lethal forces can be impacted by the location of the trauma, physical conditions, health age etc.