Safe to ship

Petty Officer 3rd Class Lewis Beck and Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Houvener, both marine science technicians at Coast Guard Sector Juneau, look through federal regulations during a container inspection in Juneau, Alaska, June 19, 2015. Coast Guard inspectors follow rigid, standardized regulations to ensure maritime operators across the country are held to the same rules. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Lewis Beck and Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Houvener, both marine science technicians at Coast Guard Sector Juneau, look through federal regulations during a container inspection in Juneau, Alaska, June 19, 2015. Coast Guard inspectors follow rigid, standardized regulations to ensure maritime operators across the country are held to the same rules. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

The three marine science technicians hop out of their government vehicle – a hefty truck with a covered bed – and start donning personal protective equipment. Gloves, glasses, helmets and safety vests are the requirement for today’s work.

The truck is parked next to an enormous shipping container, the kind you see stacked high on cargo ships. Boxes just like this one are used to deliver goods all over the world, and in places like Juneau, where there are no roads in or out, almost everything is delivered on barges loaded with containers.

Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Crews, a marine science technician with the Coast Guard Sector Juneau response department, marks a damaged section of a shipping container with chalk.

Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Crews, a marine science technician with the Coast Guard Sector Juneau response department, marks a damaged section of a shipping container with chalk.

As useful as they may be, the simple act of shipping something over the ocean comes with inherent danger. These containers weigh several tons while empty and are designed to be stacked for efficiency. On a road as bumpy as, say, the Gulf of Alaska, it’s critical that the structural integrity of the containers is maintained. It’s also important that, in the unfortunate event that a container is lost at sea, any potentially hazardous materials are properly labeled.

That’s why Coast Guard Sector Juneau’s container inspectors are here. With their safety gear on, out come the tools of the trade. They approach the subject of today’s inspection, an inbound shipment for a Juneau retailer, with care. They use a strap to keep the doors from busting open in the event that its contents shifted during its voyage. A handheld gas analyzer is placed on the ground just between the towering doors. Now the inspection can begin.

“We’re basically trying to make sure that people are shipping hazardous materials safely,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Crews, a marine science technician with the Coast Guard Sector Juneau response department. “Making sure that it’s packed correctly so that it’s not going to get damaged in transit.”

Crews is the qualified inspector of the group, so he’s not just looking for flaws in the container, he’s also teaching the other two how to do the job. First up is a thorough scan of the exterior. Some dents and dings are an expected part of the container life, but an experienced eye can spot the truly dangerous cracks or corrosion.

To the casual spectator, there might not appear to be anything wrong with this particular container. These three know better. Their search focuses especially on the load-bearing sections of the giant box. The frames there are made to withstand an incredible amount of weight, so any kind of deterioration can mean a bad day at sea.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Lewis Beck, a marine science technician with the Coast Guard Sector Juneau response department, sticks a hold advisory onto a shipping container.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Lewis Beck, a marine science technician with the Coast Guard Sector Juneau response department, sticks a hold advisory onto a shipping container.

“If we had allowed that container to continue to be used for shipping goods it would have structurally failed,” said Crews. “We can’t say if it’s going to be a year or six months, but it would have failed.”

The damage, three cracks in the frame of the container, could have lead to the box collapsing, potentially sending other containers onto vessel crewmembers or into the ocean.

The next part of the inspection is the interior. Hazardous materials must be labeled so that cargo recipients know to use due caution while opening or handling the contents. The three inspectors turn to their regulations, meticulously scanning pages to ensure that labeling inside the container meets the standard.

The crew talks to personnel in the container yard and let them know about the faulty container. They determine that once the contents are delivered to the local address, it will be taken out of service.

“Just the on-the-job training from going out and doing something like this is highly sought after,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Lewis Beck, who is also a marine science technician with the Sector Juneau response department, “and it’s highly encouraged in order to get the qualification.”

Beck and Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Houvener, a marine science technician with Sector Juneau’s prevention department, are one step closer to the qualification required to lead inspections of shipping containers, and the discrepancies found today taught them something about how to enforce regulations.

“Some people like the prevention side,” Houvener said, regarding his job. “You kind of see the full circle, knowing that down the road something bad happens but because I applied these standards, people didn’t die.”

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