Let’s stop hurting our container opening dock and warehouse workers

About a year and a quarter ago I was lucky enough to do some consulting work for Syft Technologies, a technology led company with a better mass spectrometer.

They were well known for a few years, and even listed for a time, until it became clear that they were failing to make the transition from a science led technology development company into a customer led sales driven company.

Enter my friend Doug Hastie, who became the new CEO early last year. Doug’s a sales guy and natural leader, and has been leading the Syft team in quiet sales led transformation.  Syft had their first ever sales conference recently, and are extending their global distribution network quite nicely. I’ve now invested as I see this as a long term success story.

The Syft mass spectrometer machines are amazing, it is seems that customers agree. The machines are able to detect very tiny amounts of gas inside air, and do so very quickly and even in-line. They are useful for a variety of industrial, environment and, yes, scientific purposes.

One of the best applications, it turns out, is for ensuring the safety of workers who are opening imported sea containers. It turns out that containers increasingly have toxic substances in them, such as glues from shoes, emitted gasses from wood or MDF and residue from fumigants.

Quite simply if unprotected workers enter certain containers they can die, and in many cases the contents can make workers sick, or give them long term health issues, like cancer.

Syft’s customers overseas show that between 10% and 30% of shipping containers tested contain dangerous levels of toxins. But what is it like here in New Zealand?

We now have an official answer. The NZ Customs Service ran their own comprehensive study at the Port of Tauranga last year, and their “Report on the outcomes of the fumigant risk study” was published in May 2012. The report was not released to the public then, but The Wellingtonian did an OIA request, and an article, Containers’ Toxic Cargo. It was released to the public on March 14th this year. Well done.

The NZ Customs Service, along with MAF I suspect, have to open a huge number of containers each year, and so they were rightly interested in what their workers are being exposed to. It’s an important piece of research, and was well run from what I can make out, with over 500 containers tested.

The results were frightening.
Almost 90% of the air samples collected contained some toxic fumigant or volatile organic compound.
Most of those were deemed technically safe, but one in 5.5 containers (that’s 18%) had toxins at a level that is legally reportable as unsafe. So if you open several containers each day, one in 5.5 of them is poisonous – and some of those could kill you.

Most of the containers had at least some formaldehyde, which is toxic, allergenic and carcinogenic, irritating the eyes and nose, causing cancer and lethal at high enough concentrations.

Formaldehyde, which is released from packaging and products like clothing, was also responsible for the majority of readings above the unsafe level, with one in 8.3 containers unsafe due to the gas.

About one in 4.26 containers contained levels of formaldehyde which were above Reference Exposure Levels, which is the level above where you should be mitigating exposure and protecting workers.

In second place for above the share of containers above unsafe levels was Ethylene Oxide, found in containers with medical and lab equipment. Wikipedia describes the gas as a “flammable, carcinogenic, mutagenic, irritating, and anaesthetic gas with a misleadingly pleasant aroma.”

Unfortunately 1 in 23 containers had an unsafe level of ethylene oxide.

Other chemicals also showed dangerously high levels, including 1% that had over the safe level of ethylene dibromide – the world’s top carcinogenic substance as rated by the HERP index, and 1.6% over the safe level of benzene, also a carcinogen.

Impact on Workers
I’d hate to be a worker opening containers – especially doing so over a number of years.

It appears that you have a much higher risk of repeatedly breathing in carcinogenic compounds, and there is a tangible chance of becoming ill or even death. The brave affected folks who open the containers include our customs and MAF authorities, contractors and staff working for companies who are importing the goods, port workers and inbound logistics or warehousing companies.

It’s sadly very rare to see analysis and safe defumigation by anyone, especially in NZ. It’s clearly hard to do – testing has been very painful and expensive, and safe defumigation can mean hours of fan assisted venting, and in a location well away from humans and other containers.
However this sort of occupational exposure would simply not be accepted, if known, by any reasonable organisation. We don’t accept it in mines, we don’t accept it in industrial plants, and we certainly should not accept it in our ports and warehouses.

Indeed I would not be surprised to see that the large companies that truly care about safety are the first ones to insist on safety when opening containers. These organisations, and I’ve consulted to one mining company before, can and do eliminate these sorts of health hazards to workers. It’s not easy, it’s not that cheap, but it’s worse living with yourself knowing you are unnecessarily exposing people to potentially fatal health and safety hazards each day.
However this exposure appears to be a hazard that has crept into play over time, as the amount of chemical released from shipped products appears to have risen over the last years as the products and packaging has changed. So arguably nobody really knew about the seriousness of the hazards before, but in turn this report puts everyone on notice.

In New Zealand the news was not widely spread, picked up only, as far as I can tell, buy the Welingtonian, the Southland Times and a small item on Radio NZ. Neil Ratley from The Southland times, in Toxic Gases Found in Shipping Containers, did real work as a reporter and called the local ports. He quoted South Port CE Mark O’Conner saying “There is a need to be careful about the science applied to some of these tests and the equipment used, to make sure readings are accurate and reliable”. He also spoke to Port of Otago’s commercial GM, Peter Brown, who was dismissive of the report’s potential impact.

As an aside for Messrs O’Conner and Brown, I for one believe both in the integrity of NZ Customs and also in the integrity of the Syft machines. Syft has 10 years and $30 million invested in the development and servicing of their inline mass spectrometers, and they are successfully used for container testing around the world. This report is a serious wake up call, and I would recommend investigating more, perhaps by calling NZ Customs Service in Tauranga.

The report was also picked up by the Maritime Union of New Zealand. Unfortunately that union lost a tremendous amount of credibility for me and many others last year in their protracted and ridiculous squabble with the Port of Auckland, who also didn’t cover themselves in glory. It’s sad to say, but this issue is far more imortant to their workers, but they are having little impact in the public realm, or, I would hazard, with management at ports.

But while this needs to get more attention, we do not need hysterical attention from a panicked populace and workforce. Instead we need a steady yet steely resolve from leaders in the industry to go beyond the hi-viz, and to work to prevent any further harm for their workers. Let’s not have any fatalities.

I commend the report, and please – don’t open a container and rush inside. You could die.

Some references.

The Report on the Fumigant Risk Study _External

NZHerald article: 6 Nelson workers died from Motor Neuron Syndrome, which widows believe is linked to methyl bromide exposure.

Scoop article:Centreport starts containment of methyl bromide when fumigating logs, but not recapture.

OSH: Working in Confined Spaces brochure. Note that containers are not covered – but perhaps they should be.

Published by Lance Wiggs


2 replies on “Let’s stop hurting our container opening dock and warehouse workers”

  1. Amazing.

    One of Syft’s early successes was in sales of their first generation instrument to the Australian Customs Service (http://www.nzine.co.nz/features/syfttoxicityscreening.html). That organisation was aware of this problem and had been using an alternate testing method for years but favoured the Syft machine as a replacement.

    I understand they have been successful in other jurisdictions too (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU0803/S00226.htm).

    It is a shame that it has taken until now for some one like you to invest in Syft. Any chance you might get onto the board and help them out too?


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