Safety on the Docks

Work at docks can be hazardous as there are many elements to contend with. Cargo may have to be unloaded/loaded at certain times, in all types of weather, regardless, foreign vessels may not have an English speaking crew and there may be logistical problems with crane and loading equipment.  There is always the unexpected, like a cargo box getting jammed, lack of moving equipment available or inability to unload due to a wharf tide etc. These are just some of the risks that may be experienced in this kind of environment. There needs to be full co-operation, communication and logistic management. As well as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, there are also other acts, specific legislation and best practice regulations for work on docks.

Dry Cargo

Dry cargo can contain large quantities of dust, from it’s prolonged storage or through emissions from the material itself. Typical cargoes can include grain, soya, fertilisers etc which can have a chronic effect on the lungs. There is also a risk from back injury and sprains through incorrect moving of freight. Lifting equipment should be strong and stable and safe working loads clearly indicated. Dock personnel should not be put at risk from falls.The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) would be used in these conditions to handle dusty cargos.


Containers with corrugated side panels should be used. Non hazardous liquids like wine or latex, for example, are most ofden transported in strong flexi-bags. The harness straps on the bags must be tightly secured in the container.

Dangerous Substances

‘Dangerous Substances’ can include explosives, gas in cylinders, flammable gas in cartridges, flammable liquids (flash point less than 21°C), industrial nitrocellulose, organic peroxides, infectious substances, radioactive substances etc. Freight containers should be labelled with the appropriate hazard warning sign for the class of dangerous substance they contain.

Harbour masters would need to know well in advance when dangerous substances will be brought into their harbour area. According to the Dangerous Substances in Harbour Areas Regulations 1987, it may be necessary to prevent entry of this cargo if it poses a high health and safety risk. During the handling of dangerous substances, fire fighting equipment should be on standby. The storage of dangerous substances is controlled by the Highly Flammable Liquids and Liquefied Petroleum Gases Regulations 1972. Any dangerous substance that is placed in a tank should be compatible with the materials of that tank. Hazards from dangerous substances include ignition following a spill, explosion, fire and toxic fumes.

In general, dock cargo should be stored in such a way as to minimise the need for walking or climbing onto it, especially if this involves an approach to the edge of a dangerous drop. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) must be supplied for all dock workers in all conditions of loading/unloading of cargo.  It should be stored in such a way that the product is protected and not affected by the elements or near sources of contamination. Slip resistant footwear should be provided if it is necessary to walk around freight pallets, especially in wet rainy conditions. The lighting should be reasonably constant and uniform and labels should be clearly seen on cargo boxes. Cargo handling vehicles, for example, fork lifts that are lifted onto or off ships by crane should have safe suitable points  for the attachment of lifting gear. All containers must be packed properly because maritime conditions can cause them to be unsettled during transit, damaged or to be a hazard when unloading. When unloading cargo, doors and other loose parts should be secured. Loads should only be moved with the equipment appropriate for lifting that load.

Where one has to work in a confined space on a ship, there is a risk of intoxication due to vapour or fumes or asphyxiation through lack of oxygen. Every precaution should be made to prevent this from happening. Working at heights, lifting and sliding of loads would be done in accordance with the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 to ensure the safe handling of cargo.


Sources: HSE

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