Popular repurposed shipping containers are ‘potential bombs’

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

New WorkSafeBC campaign warns of ‘significant’ risk when used for storage

The Province

A propane tank stored inside a shipping container on a Saanich construction site ?became a bomb,? according to a WorkSafeBC video about a 2013 incident in which the explosion sent one of the container?s heavy metal doors across the street into a public park. ADRIAN LAM/TIMES COLONIST FILES

Designed to transport goods across international waters, shipping containers have become darlings of the DIY world, linked with buzzwords like “pop up” and “upcycling.”

They’ve also attracted the attention of B.C.’s workplace safety authority. A new WorkSafeBC video campaign warns that reusing or repurposing shipping containers can “create unseen risks to workers and the public.”

“The potential for explosion is quite significant,” WorkSafeBC director Dan Strand said Friday.

Portable, strong and easy to secure, shipping containers have become a popular storage solution on construction sites across the province, he explained. Many large sites have one or two steel containers for various uses, including office space, electrical rooms or painting. They’re also popping up on farms and in residential neighbourhoods.

While the containers can be used safely, WorkSafe has found a lack of awareness about the risks. Because they are airtight and watertight, it is unsafe to store anything flammable inside without proper ventilation. Employees should be trained to prevent accidents while proper signage lets firefighters know the container is a “potential bomb,” Strand said.

In 2011, an Enderby firefighter was struck and killed by a door that blew off a shipping container while he was fighting a fire in the next building. Afterward, investigators found the container was being used to house a collection of gas-powered tools. When the fuel vapour was exposed to extreme heat, the container exploded.

In 2013, a propane tank stored in a shipping container on a Saanich construction site “became a bomb,” according to a WorkSafeBC video about the incident. The explosion sent one of the container’s heavy metal doors across the street into a public park. It also destroyed an adjacent shipping container that served as an office, injuring one worker, and blew out the windows of nearby buildings and cars.

A WorkSafeBC investigation attributed the explosion to a barbecue that had been used the previous day by construction workers on a break. The propane tank valve had been left open, while a burner valve may have inadvertently been turned on as the barbecue was being placed in the container for storage. The container filled with propane, and a spark from a soft drink dispenser — also stored in the container — ignited the gas.

The Fire Chiefs Association of B.C. has been working on the issue for several years, said member Don Delcourt.

“Shock went through the whole fire service when we lost a firefighter to a hazard we hadn’t really considered before,” he said.

Attempts to get the fire code changed to recognize that shipping containers are being used as buildings were unsuccessful, leading the association to draft a “model bylaw” that can be adopted by local governments. Bylaw officers can enforce standards around venting and labelling.

WorkSafe is also educating employers on the potential dangers associated with shipping containers, said Strand. If education is unsuccessful and a risky situation persists, the safety authority can order the employer to improve conditions. WorkSafe plans to be in contact with the companies that sell shipping containers, hoping they’ll provide safety material to purchasers.

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