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Distribution workers who open or enter freight containers could be damaging their health, according to the HSE.

The organisation is warning that workers opening sealed freight containers at distribution centres could be exposed to a build-up of dangerously low oxygen levels or hazardous substances in the air.

The warning follows research by HSE scientists at six ports and two distribution centres.

The scientists found a range of hazardous substances and low oxygen levels inside the containers which had the potential to affect workers who open or enter them.

They also found that, while the six ports they visited had implemented safety systems to protect workers from these hazards, the two DCs did not have adequate safety systems in place.

Nicola Jaynes, from HSE’s transport and public services unit, said: “This important research looked at the associated systems of work at ports and distribution centres across Great Britain.

“Some hazardous atmospheres have the potential to harm workers if breathed in. For example, they may contain toxic substances such as fumigants and carbon monoxide or have dangerously low oxygen levels. Potential harm includes asphyxiation and ill health.

“The research confirmed there is the potential for exposure to hazardous substances and/or oxygen depleted atmospheres when opening freight containers if effective control measures are not in place. This underlines the need for suitable and sufficient risk assessment when conducting this type of work.

“It identified a range of good practice control measures at the six ports. Examples of this included training workers about the risks, and workers testing for hazardous substances in the atmosphere inside freight containers before entering them.

She added: “However, the researchers did not find adequate safe systems of work at the two distribution centres.

“While this was only a small sample size, these findings cannot be considered as representative of the distribution sector.

“HSE will use the findings to inform and engage with the industry and local authority regulators.”

HSE is warning that under The Confined Spaces Regulations 1997 – L101, business must have effective control measures in place to protect workers opening sealed freight containers.