The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) which represents over 4 million union members associated with the transport industry has expressed fears over the safety of some reefer shipping containers following fatal accidents. In April of this year there were two incidents at a Cat Lai repair yard in the Port of Ho Chi Minh City whilst repairs were under way on Maersk Linereefer boxes followed by another death in Itajai ,Brazil last month.
Maersk tell us that investigations so far lead them to conclude that the three explosions have been caused by a contaminated refrigerant being injected into the cooling system. Incorrect repair processes and procedures would not be able to cause these explosions. Until the exact reason for the incidents is known and a safe repair method has been developed, Maersk Line will continue to ground all reefers that have had a gas repair in Vietnam since the 1st February. This is being done as a precautionary measure the total number of units being involved is 844 whilst the Danish group operate 230,000 reefers in total. Hutchison Ports has also advised its customers to check any containers serviced or repaired in Vietnam recently and there are reports of another similar accident in China earlier this year.
Maersk are in possession of samples from the unit that exploded in Itajai as well as gas samples from containers they have grounded and that have had gas repairs done in Vietnam. Unions are calling for full investigation into the causes and scope of the problem and ITF representative Frank Leys said the unions were pleased to see that big shipping lines like Maersk had reacted so quickly to deal with the situation and urged the US union organisations to ensure companies operating from there acted equally promptly to alleviate any risk. Mr Leys, the ITF dockers’ section secretary continued:
“Where there are possibly contaminated containers still at large, we are calling on port authorities and shipping companies to issue clear guidance on how they should be handled. The health and safety of workers is paramount and in no instance should commercial or productivity issues be allowed to supersede the welfare of workers.”
Seafarers’ section secretary Jon Whitlow added:
“We are extremely concerned for the welfare of those workers on ships who may be unaware that a defective container is being carried on board. Although we acknowledge that the maritime community is moving fast to provide the necessary information and advice on how to handle the contaminated containers in ports, we hope the same approach and priority is given to adequately inform the on board safety officers in order to protect the integrity of seafarers and ships.
“Whilst of course the explosion of a container ashore is a tragic event, we think that a similar explosion on board a vessel could have potentially catastrophic effects on workers, ships and the environment.”
Authorities in Vietnam tell us within weeks Tan Cang will begin verifying the gas quality with a specialist machine before recharging reefer containers. Last week neighbouring Cat Lai port held a meeting to review the situation and the implications for the trade in container repairs and inspections which local sources estimate will cost them up to $20 per box if standard checks are farmed out to other ports en route. A statement said that port bosses agreed to allow the shipping lines to appoint a suitable foreign inspector to oversee repair and inspection procedures.
Vietnam has long provided the essential pre trip inspections (PTI’s) required by refrigerated units. Each reefer is subject to either a 20 minute check which is suitable for empty or loaded containers or an extended test which normally takes around 3 hours and is only suitable for empty boxes. In each case the control system for the fridge unit is checked and that there are no odours, gas leaks etc plus the box is clean and trip worthy