In February 2023, a forklift operator died after he was struck by a chain at a building material supply workplace. Early investigations indicate a forklift was unloading steel weld mesh from a shipping container using a connection point located in the forklift’s counterbalance to drag the material out of the container. It appears part of the towing equipment failed and the chain recoiled towards the forklift, striking the operator.
These findings are not yet confirmed, and investigations are continuing into the exact cause.
Workers are at risk when they are unpacking heavy, awkward and unsecured items from shipping containers. The items packed in containers vary significantly and can be small, large, heavy, light or bulky.
Hazards associated with unpacking shipping containers include but are not limited to:
- containers placed on sloping or uneven ground
- inadequate lighting to allow safe unpacking of the contents
- loose items due to inadequate securing to prevent movement during transport
- items not packed for easy unpacking, not on pallets or slip sheets
- loose items falling from a height
- items coming loose during transport forcing the doors open or falling on workers when the door is first opened
- unsafe unpacking systems, such as using unsuitable straps, chains or restraints or using them incorrectly
- using incorrect equipment to unload the items—in this case using a forklift not designed to tow or drag items out of the container
- overloading plant, and not taking the rated capacities of attachments into consideration.
Source: Guide For Unpacking Shipping Containers - SafeWork NSW
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
Persons conducing a business or undertaking (PCBU) must control the risks associated with mobile plant, including the risk of pedestrians being struck by plant and or associated attachments. PCBUs should conduct a risk assessment of work practices, develop appropriate safe work systems, conduct appropriate training and ensure the system is enforced at the workplace.
Consider redesigning your container unloading process. Consult with your goods supplier about possible options. Consider purpose designed container unloading systems.
The person with management or control of plant at a workplace must:
- so far as is reasonably practicable, prevent unauthorised alterations to or interference with the plant
- take all reasonable steps to ensure the plant is only used for the purpose for which it is designed
- in determining whether or not the proposed use of the plant increases the risk to health and safety, ensure the risk is assessed by a competent person
- take all reasonable steps to ensure all safety features, warning devices, guarding, operational controls and emergency stops are used in accordance with the instructions and information provided.
When plant is being used to lift or suspend things, the person with management or control of the plant must also ensure it is designed to lift or suspend the load. This includes ensuring the lifting and suspending is carried out:
- with lifting attachments that are suitable for the load being lifted or suspended
- within the safe working limits of the plant.
A safe system of work should be implemented to manage the risks associated with unloading shipping containers with mobile plant. This could include, but is not limited to the following:
- ensuring the mobile plant is inspected, maintained and repaired according to the manufacturer’s recommendations and specifications (the manufacturer's instructions must be included in a safe work procedure on how inspection and maintenance should be carried out)
- implementing exclusion zones to prevent people from entering the area (the size of the exclusion zone should be based on a written risk assessment)
- ensuring the operator has received adequate training and instruction to use the mobile plant and its equipment. PCBU’s should assess and verify the operator’s knowledge and competence to operate the plant before they commence work. In some circumstances, the operator of the mobile plant may also need to hold the appropriate high risk work licence class
- inspecting the load prior to unloading to identify any potential movement of materials that occurred during transit or that may become a hazard while unloading
- ensuring all lifting gear is:
- inspected for damage and wear by a competent person before each lift and receives a comprehensive inspection at periodical intervals (e.g. not exceeding 12 months for chain slings, more frequent for synthetic lifting slings)
- tagged to identify the date of the lifting gear’s last inspection (documented maintenance records should be available at the workplace)
- used for the appropriate loads being lifted.
- slinging loads—if the worker is required to judge the suitability and condition of lifting gear and the method of attaching the sling (including sling accessories) to the load or plant, then they must hold a dogger’s high risk work (HRWL) licence. In addition, a dogger’s HRWL is required if the load is out of view of the plant operator
- providing all relevant information, training and instruction before work begins. Confirming workers involved in the activities are aware of the weight of the stock to be loaded or unloaded. Tool box meetings are one way to consult and discuss tasks with workers.
Any remaining risk must be minimised with suitable personal protective equipment. For example, hard hats, steel cap boots, eye protection, hearing protection and high visibility vests.
Administrative control measures and PPE rely on human behaviour and supervision. If used on their own, they are least effective in minimising risks. The control measures you put in place should be reviewed regularly to make sure they work as planned.
- 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 risks in stevedoring code of practice 2023 (PDF, 0.83 MB)
- Managing traffic onsite - video
- Guide for unpacking shipping containers - SafeWork NSW
- Managing risk when unpacking shipping containers – Safe Work Australia
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