In April 2022, a worker was crushed to death after being trapped between a triangular stacked (set of three) semi-trailer axels (weighing approximately 1 tonne) and the side of a shipping container. Early investigations show the man was unpacking product from the shipping container when for reasons not yet established the axels moved and trapped him.
These findings are not yet confirmed, and investigations are continuing into the exact cause.
There have been a series of crushing incidents where objects, including semi-trailer axels, toppling slabs and panels have trapped someone against the floor or wall of a shipping container. These incidents have resulted in fatalities, amputations and serious musculoskeletal injuries.
The force from the mass and potential movement of objects is commonly underestimated. Once an object (load) begins to suddenly move or fall towards someone close by, there is often limited opportunity to avoid being struck.
Hazards associated with unpacking containers include:
- falls from height
- being hit by falling, toppling or rolling objects
- hazardous chemicals
- being hit by mobile plant
- environmental conditions (heat or cold)
- hazardous manual tasks (repetitive strain injuries)
- slips, trips and falls.
The risk of crushing or entrapment around shipping container work increases when:
- activity occurs within the 'fall shadow' of an object that is not restrained, or where there is potential for restraints to fail
- people attempt to physically restrain or stop a falling object
- objects move more than expected or in an unintended way during handling, which often causes the object to fall
- shipping containers are inappropriately packed
- damage occurs or loads shift during transport
- plant is used incorrectly (overloading forklifts and using lifting attachments not specifically designed for the task)
- mass, speed and force applied is underestimated when an object is moved by a crane or forklift.
Ways to manage health and safety
Taking steps to manage risks is a condition of doing business in Queensland. Effective risk management starts with a commitment to health and safety from those who manage the business. If an incident occurs, you'll need to show the regulator that you’ve used an effective risk management process. This responsibility is covered by your primary duty of care in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.
Use the hierarchy of controls to help decide how to eliminate and reduce risks in your place of work. The hierarchy of controls ranks types of control methods from the highest level of protection and reliability to the lowest. It’s a step-by-step approach to eliminating or reducing risks. You must work through the hierarchy of controls when managing risks, with the aim of eliminating the hazard, which is the most effective control.
Possible control measures to prevent similar incidents
Unpacking containers without a safe system of work may lead to a haphazard, ad hoc approach that exposes workers to risk, especially when they’re dealing with heavy, awkward and unsecured items. The risk of injury from unloading shipping container goods can be eliminated or significantly reduced by:
- planning the order in which the goods should be removed to avoid remaining items becoming unstable and falling
- determining the number of workers required to safely unpack the container
- determining the appropriate equipment to unpack the load safely (this might include, but is not limited to, mobile plant such as forklifts, conveyors and personal protective equipment)
- reducing manual handling by using mechanical systems (this can include powered mechanical aids such as a forklift or electric pallet truck)
- considering the placement of the container, the movement of plant into and out of the container, and the placement of load you are unpacking when outside of the container
- considering risks that may arise during unpacking, and ways to minimise risks by including control measures to either prevent or manage hazards
- only removing the restraints of the item to be immediately unpacked
- ensuring work is never done in the fall shadow of an object without suitable controls in place
- stabilising items temporarily with suitably rated restraint devices such as props, braces or frames where there is a risk of the items falling
- ensuring workers never attempt to restrain or stop an object while it is falling
- keeping the area around the container clear of obstructions
- having an appropriate traffic management plan
- packing small items on a pallet to be removed using a pallet truck or a forklift.
If manual unpacking is necessary you should:
- train workers in the safest system of work to unload the container
- ensure goods are handled between the knee and shoulder height by using pallet jacks, pallet rollers, trolleys or adjustable conveyers
- use PPE such as gloves, hard hats, safety glasses and hi-visibility clothing.
If you are unpacking the container with mobile plant, you should:
- ensure appropriate traffic management measures are in place to separate people and plant
- use a crane or forklift with attachments such as grabs, spikes or slippers that are suitable for the load
- use a tag line to guide loads lifted by a crane to ensure it is steady and away from the main load (note - attachments and slings must be inspected and maintained)
- ensure the ratings of any plant using attachments, such as fork tyne slippers, are known to avoid overloading.
- Managing risks of plant in the workplace code of practice 2021 (PDF, 1.57 MB)
- How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB)
- Managing traffic onsite - video
- Safety Alert – Employee crushed in shipping container – Worksafe Victoria
- Safety Alert – Employee crushed by stone slabs in shipping container – Worksafe Victoria
- Managing risk when unpacking shipping containers – Safe Work Australia Information sheet
- Guide for unpacking shipping containers – Safework NSW (pdf)