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Truck driver exposed to phosphine gas

In July 2021, a truck driver began feeling very unwell after transporting grain to a feedlot with his semi-trailer. It appears the worker was exposed to a fumigant that produced phosphine gas which is commonly used to control insect infestations in grain.

For reasons yet to be established the truck driver was exposed during the period of transportation.

Investigations are continuing.

Safety issues

Fumigants, like aluminium phosphide, are used in the agriculture industry to kill pests such as grain weevils. Aluminium phosphide is a solid fumigant that reacts with moisture in the air to release the highly toxic phosphine gas.

If the manufacturer’s directions aren’t followed, there’s a potential serious risk to users and others who transport or store the grain. Reducing timeframes or applying aluminium phosphide fumigants in poorly-sealed containers, such as a semi or B-double trailer covered with a tarpaulin, will not effectively control pests and creates a serious risk to workers and others from any remaining phosphine gas.

Phosphine gas is toxic when breathed in at concentrations approaching or exceeding the workplace exposure standard of 0.3ppm time weighted average over an 8 hour work day or 1ppm as a 15 minute short term exposure limit.

Early symptoms of exposure may include:

  • respiratory problems, including coughing
  • double vision, dizziness and headaches
  • fatigue
  • gastrointestinal disturbances such as pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Exposure to high levels of phosphine gas can cause damage to the kidneys, liver, heart, as well as pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs), convulsions and death. Phosphine gas is heavier than air and hazardous concentrations can develop quickly in enclosed, poorly ventilated, or low-lying areas.

Ways to manage health and safety

Aluminium phosphide is a Schedule 7 poison under the Commonwealth Government’s Poisons Standard June 2021 and has a high potential for causing harm at low exposures and requires special precautions during handling and use. The Chemical Usage (Agricultural and Veterinary) Control Regulation 2017requires users to be qualified, or in the case of infrequent use, under the direct supervision of a qualified person.

You must store, handle, use and dispose of aluminium phosphide in accordance with the product label and safety data sheet which contains information on the fumigation, ventilation and re-entry periods as well as precautions required to manage the health and safety of workers and others.

Developing a safe system of work for fumigation related activities. This could include, but is not limited to the following examples:

  • Store canisters correctly to prevent deterioration of the tablets.
  • Ensure fumigation is conducted in well-sealed enclosures and fumigation and ventilation periods are followed.
  • Allowing only qualified workers to use aluminium phosphide while on the farm and engaging a licensed pest management technician to fumigate products that have left the farm. Users must hold the following national units of competency:
  • Consider having equipment available and calibrated to measure the concentration of phosphine if fumigation is a routine practice.
  • Ensure duty holders consult, cooperate and coordinate activities with others (e.g. supply chain parties, transport operators) who also have a duty in relation to the same matter as required by work health and safety legislation. Duty holders are also required consult with workers who carry out work for the business.
  • Develop safe work practices and procedures to conduct fumigation related activities and managing fumigated grain.
  • Provide workers and others with personal protective equipment (PPE) required by the product label and ensuring PPE is maintained, repaired and replaced so that the equipment remains clean and hygienic, and in good working order.
  • Providing workers and others with information, training and instruction on fumigation activities, emergency procedures and the proper use, maintenance and the storage of PPE.
  • Prepare and keep records of agricultural chemical applications and worker training.

Following the product use and control requirements on the label will significantly reduce the likelihood of a similar incident occurring. The safe system of work and control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned.

More information

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