How to: Load and Unload Sea Containers Safely

Published: 23rd September 2009
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Research shows that approximately 90% of the world's non-bulk cargo moves in containers stacked on transport ships. They improve port handling efficiency, help lower freight handling charges, and boost trade flows. Almost every manufactured product humans consume spends some time in a container.

Sea containers are essential to the shipping industry, but can be dangerous to load and unload. Each year hundreds of port workers worldwide sustain severe sprain or strain injuries through incorrect or improper manual handling. Known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and usually occurring in the neck, back or legs, these are often long term and extremely painful.

MSDs have devastating health implications, and affect employees' work, everyday lives and families. Associated costs to companies, including lawsuits, lost productivity and training replacement staff, are enormous.

Manual handling activities to consider

Manual handling includes any tasks that require an individual to lift, move or support a load. Most countries have safety regulations that protect workers from excessive or dangerous manual handling. It is the employer's responsibility to be aware of these regulations and implement measures to reduce the risk of injuries.

Loading or unloading sea containers may involve a number of manual handling activities, including:

Delivering items to a sea container from a warehouse or storage area for loading

Transporting goods to the rear of a sea container

Stacking items within a sea container

Removing goods from stacks within a sea container

Transporting items out of a sea container

Workers carrying out any of these activities risk sustaining MSD injuries through actions such as repetitive heavy lifting, awkward postures (e.g. stacking or removing items from above shoulder height or below knee height, and sustained movement (e.g. carrying items in and out of the container).

Using mechanical aids to reduce manual handling

Mechanical aids, such as telescopic boom conveyors, significantly reduce manual handling requirements and the associated risk of workers sustaining MSDs. They allow ports to load and unload sea containers efficiently, which leads to a quicker cargo ship turnaround, significant cost savings, and short payback periods.

Telescopic boom conveyors

Fixed telescopic boom conveyors stay in one position and are not easily moved, ideal for loading docks in busy ports. They extend into sea containers and transport items on powered belts or rollers to an operator for loading. As the container fills, the operator retracts the boom and adjusts its height to maintain an ergonomic working position. Travel direction is reversible to allow both loading and unloading.

Users can equip fixed telescopic boom conveyors with 'droop snoots', short conveyor sections at the end of the boom that operators can raise or lower to further complement their loading position. When not in use, droop snoots fold upright, leaving the front of the conveyor unobstructed for forklift trucks and pedestrians.

Mobile loaders

Mounted on large swivel castors or wheels, mobile loaders are manoeuvrable, enabling them to meet a port's varying needs. They usually comprise a powered roller conveyor fixed to an incline belt conveyor. Items travel up the inclined conveyor and transfer onto the roller conveyor, which extends into the sea container and transports items smoothly to the operator for loading. Again, travel direction is reversible to allow both loading and unloading.

Mobile loaders are height adjustable and fully counterbalanced. This makes them ideal for ports, where containers typically sit higher than normal dock level during loading and unloading.

Both fixed telescopic boom conveyors and mobile loaders are available with varying extension lengths, allowing operators to reach the rear of twenty foot and forty foot sea containers comfortably. Users can specify different belt widths to ensure the safe transportation of large, heavy or awkwardly shaped items.

A range of conveyors to choose from

There are many conveyor models to choose from, many of which incorporate a range of additional features. Some have LED (light emitting diode) or halogen lighting at the front of the boom, which provides clear visibility in dark sea containers and further reduces the risk of injury.

Roller shrouds eliminate nipping points (areas of the conveyor that could trap parts of a person), and emergency stop controls provide immediate switch-off in the unlikely event of an accident.

Fixed telescopic boom conveyors and mobile loaders are fast becoming standard equipment at busy ports. By using them, shipping companies can minimise the risk of workers sustaining MSD injuries through loading and unloading sea containers, and improve efficiency and productivity levels.

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