Guide for unpacking shipping containers


This guide provides you with information on how to manage health and safety risks when unpacking containers transported by land or sea. From the opening of the container doors, through to removing and transporting items to the storage location – the guide covers your obligations under work health and safety legislation.

Key hazards

This guide does not address the loading of containers, related traffic management, handling dangerous goods in containers and packing items into containers. This publication is for all those legally responsible for health and safety when unpacking shipping containers. Those with legal duties include employers, contractors, labour hire agencies, freight forwarders, consignors, customers and employees.

For details of these topics refer to more information chapter of this document.

Download a PDF version of this guide

Risk management

A safe and healthy workplace does not happen by chance or guesswork. You have to think about what could go wrong at your workplace and what the consequences could be. Then you must do whatever is reasonably practicable to eliminate or minimise health and safety risks arising from your business or undertaking.

To manage risks, you must first identify all potential hazards associated with unpacking shipping containers, assess them where necessary, and then eliminate the hazards so far as is reasonably practicable.  If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate this hazard, the risk must be controlled in accordance with the hierarchy of controls. The controls should be subject to the requirements of ‘what is reasonably practicable’.

It is not always necessary to conduct an assessment, especially if the risks and effective control measures are already known. For example, choosing a forklift to remove pallet loads.

In deciding how to control risks you must consult your workers and their representatives who will be directly affected by this decision. Their experience will help you choose appropriate control measures and their involvement will increase the level of acceptance of any changes that may be needed to the way they do their work.

Review your control measures from time to time to ensure they are working as planned and remain relevant.

The items packed in containers vary significantly, small, large, heavy, light and bulky. Therefore, the management of associated risks also will vary from one container to another.

Key principles

Key principles

Packing by the supplier

The best way to plan for safe unpacking is to work with the supplier to ensure:

If you have the facilities to unpack containers from the top, ask your supplier to use open top containers to avoid entering the container for unpacking.

Using containers that allow access from both ends will also help you to avoid entering the container and enable the of use dual lifts to remove bulky or long items.

Ask your supplier for a packing plan that includes a list of items, the weights of items, where items are placed in the container and how the items are restrained. This information will help you develop a safe system of work for unpacking prior to the container arriving on site.

Image of container packing plan

Container placement

What is the issue?

Placement of a container in an inadequate location onsite can lead to a number of risks including:

How can I manage this?

The risk of injuries arising from the placement of the container can be eliminated or significantly reduced by:

Image of driver unloading container with forklift - on even ground

Before opening the container

What is the issue?

Loads within a container often shift during transportation or may move as a result of inadequate packing.  Goods may be pushing against container doors. This can lead to uncontrolled opening of the doors.  Workers are at risk of being hit by unrestrained items or falling loads.

How can I manage this?

The risk of injuries arising from the opening the container can be eliminated or significantly reduced by:

Image of container doors with restraint attached

Before you unpack the container

What is the issue?

Unpacking without a plan may lead to an unsystematic, adhoc approach. This can ultimately expose your workers to risks.

How can I manage this?

The risk of injuries arising from the opening of the container can be eliminated or significantly reduced by:

Images of containers with bulky items loaded on pallets and stacked


What is the issue?

Workers are at risk when they are unpacking heavy, awkward and unsecured items.

The systems used to unpack containers may include the manual handling of goods. This can involve heavy lifting, using awkward postures and spending long periods of time doing the same movements.  Mobile plant can be used to eliminate the need to complete hazardous manual tasks.

All of these can pose a range of risks to worker including:

How can I manage this?

The risk of injuries arising from unpacking shipping containers can be eliminated or significantly reduced by:

Images of workers stacking boxes from container onto pallets and unloading with manual conveyor

Ensure the ratings of any plant using attachments, such as fork tyne slippers, are known to avoid overloading.

Image of workers using suitable equipment to unload like a fork lift truck with grabs

More information

WHS Legal duties

The Guide to the model work health & safety act provides an overview of the Work Health and Safety Act (WHS Act) to help people generally understand their health and safety duties and rights at work.  This includes guidance on the obligations of an employer, business, worker, visitor, designers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers pages. Refer to pages 7-11.

Risk management

The code of practice how to manage work health and safety risks provides information on identifying hazards, assessing and controlling risks, reviewing controls and keeping records.

Traffic management

The general guide for workplace traffic management provides advice for small businesses and workers on managing traffic risks in the workplace and includes a traffic hazard checklist n on what to look for and how manage risks that may arise from traffic movements in warehouses.

Manual tasks

The code of practice for hazardous manual tasks shows you how to manage the risk of musculoskeletal disorders arising from hazardous manual tasks.

Residual chemicals in shipping containers

In 2011 Safe Work Australia commissioned a project to investigate worker exposures when unpacking shipping containers at retail warehouse or distribution centres.  While findings cannot be generalised, a report; Hazard surveillance: Residual chemicals in shipping containers provides indicative results for workers who unpack shipping containers.

Working on or next overhead powerlines

The code of practice for work near overhead power lines shows you how to manage the risks arising when working near overhead power lines.


The code of practice for managing the risk of falls at workplaces provides information about managing the risk of falls, working on the ground and from a solid construction, fall prevention devices, work positioning systems, fall-arrest systems, ladders, administrative controls, emergency procedures, and the design of plant and structures.

Working alone

The code of practice for managing the work environment and facilities provides advice on working in isolation.

Or, call 13 10 50.


SafeWork NSW would like to acknowledge the following stakeholders for their invaluable contribution to this initiative:



Also referred to as shipping containers, theyare a steel or aluminium frame forming a box in which cargo can be stowed for the transport of items by road, rail or sea.  They are fitted with special castings on the corners for securing to lifting equipment, vessels, chassis, rail cars, or stacking on other containers.  Containers come in many forms and types, including ventilated, insulated, refrigerated, flat rack, vehicle rack, open top, bulk liquid, dry bulk, or other special configurations. Typical containers may be 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet, 45 feet, 48 feet, or 53 feet in length. They can be 8 feet or 8.5 feet in width, and 8.5 feet or 9.5 feet in height.


Material used in stowing cargo, either for separation or the prevention of damage. This includes wooden dunnage, beams, planks, boards, wedges, plywood and hardboards, walking boards, mats and paper. It can also include sailcloth, canvas and tarpaulins, plastic and metal sheets, spray covers; cardboard and paperboard and packing paper.


Also known as a Freight Forwarder. This is a person or company who arranges for the carriage of goods and associated formalities on behalf of a shipper. The duties of a forwarder include booking space on a ship, providing all the necessary documentation, and arranging customs clearance.


The movement of containers between transport modes.


The movement of the container during transportation.


The process of filling the contents of a shipping container. This can also be referred to as stuffing.


A corrugated, solid fibre or plastic sheet that sits between stacks of shrink wrapped product. Each sheet has one to four tabs that run the length of the sheet and extend past the load and fold up to allow for grabbing by push/pull attachments. Unlike pallets, slip sheets use little storage space in the container or truck and allow the same amount of product to be stored as if it was stacked by hand.


The process of emptying the contents of a shipping container. This can also be referred to as destuffing, stripping or de-vanning.