In 1956, Malcom McLean revolutionized the freight industry by introducing intermodal shipping containers that allow carriers to containerize and load cargo onto a shipping vessel quickly, safely, and efficiently. 

Most containers in the market today are made from maritime-grade corten steel to ensure they retain their structural integrity when transporting commodities, manufactured goods, vehicles, and more.

Shipping containers are equipped with hinged doors that have specific locking mechanisms designed to hold cargo safely and ensure safe stowage. However, opening or closing shipping container doors isn’t as straightforward as most people might think, especially those new to the shipping industry. 

It can be complex and dangerous unless you know the right way to do it. For instance, you must ensure the container is on level ground or at a loading/unloading dock. You would also need to pay attention to cargo potentially toppling during the process. 

In this guide, you will learn how to open a shipping container correctly and safely through our step-by-step process. We’ve also included a section where we explain some important tips and highlight some best practices.  

1. Break Container Seals

Seals are a fundamental part of a shipping container, as they securely lock the doors once the cargo has been loaded. A sealed container cannot be opened during transit unless the seal is broken. 

While there are various types of container seals, the most common ones are cable and bolt seals (also called bullet seals). As they prevent the container doors from being opened, they need to be removed first. 

Shipping containers have at least one seal that is located on the right container door. To remove it, you’ll need to follow the steps below using a bolt cutter.

  1. Put on your safety glasses and work gloves
  2. Hold the bolt cutter horizontally with each hand on one handle
  3. Position the open jaws around the thinnest part of the container seal
  4. Squeeze the bolt cutter until the seal is broken

Additional Information: ISO 1496-1-certified containers that are shipped to high-risk areas or that are carrying high-value cargo may have an additional seal for protective purposes. The second seal is typically located at the bottom of the left locking bar on the right container door. This is also called the SecuraCam seal position.

2. Flip Both Latches on the Right Door Upward

There are two key things to remember when opening the doors of a shipping container. First, you should never open both doors simultaneously to avoid binding in the middle. Secondly, you should always start with the right door since it overlaps the left door. 

flipping latches

To open the right container door, you need to rotate and lift both latches above the handles and pull them towards you once they’re in a vertical position. Some containers may require you to push in first to release the hooks on the top and bottom of each bar from their holders.

Note: When flipping the latches in an upward position, you need to ensure they’re not near the retainer catch, so they don’t lock into it. 

3. Pull & Turn Both Handles Toward You

Once the latches are in a vertical position, take a couple of steps back, and place your left hand on the left handle and your right hand on the right one. Then, lift both handles from their slots, and push them outward while pulling the door slowly and steadily. 

pulling both handles

Maintain your center of gravity by placing one foot slightly in front of the other and lightly bending your knees. As soon as the door opens by a couple of inches, have someone take a quick peek inside to ensure the cargo isn’t toppling over. If there is no risk of loose cargo falling over, open the right container door fully. 

It’s not uncommon for cargo to topple during transit or rough container handling. The risk of toppling is increased when shipping non-palletized cargo such as loose boxes or goods that are held in place by unsecured lashing. 

4. Flip Both Latches on the Left Door Upward

Once you’ve opened the right door and inspected that no cargo is toppled over and is at risk of falling on you, you can proceed to open the left door by repeating the same steps as before. Continue by lifting both latches on the left door upward and free them from the retainer catch. 

5. Pull & Turn Both Handles Toward You

Once you’ve lifted the latches out of their slots, place your hands on both handles and pull the left door towards you. Again, do this slowly and carefully, as container doors are heavy and can easily swing outward with enough momentum. 

Also make sure to look behind you when swinging the left container door open, especially in crowded areas, as it could put people or machinery at risk. At the same time, both doors should be opened wide enough for material handling equipment (MHE) and ground personnel to enter the container. 

Important Tips & Best Practices When Opening A Shipping Container

Now that you’ve learned how to open shipping containers correctly and safely, we’d like to share some valuable tips and best practices to maximize safety.

Ensure That The Seal Has Not Been Tampered With

The first thing operators or cargo handlers need to do before opening a shipping container is to check the seal. As mentioned earlier, any form of damage or tampering is a sign that the container may have been opened at any point during transit. 

If you notice that a container seal has been tampered with, is damaged, or missing, you should get a surveyor from your insurance company for further assessment. They will document any findings and advise you on the next steps. 

Containers Should Be Opened On Level Ground

The next important tip is to avoid opening containers on uneven grounds, as it will either make opening the container doors extremely challenging (due to their weight) or can cause them to swing open, knocking you over once the handles are turned.  

In the worst-case scenario, loose cartons can topple over causing damage and injury. In other cases, they could also delay unloading or loading by making it difficult for handlers and machinery to access the cargo. 

Open Container Doors Slowly

Containers should be opened slowly and carefully – this applies to laden and empty containers. Failing to do so can cause damage to cargo or injury to ground personnel. 

To put things into perspective, an empty 20-foot standard container weighs around 5,000 lbs. Each door weighs a few hundred pounds, so you can imagine the force they carry when swinging, especially if the container is tilted. 

Even a minor knock can result in unwanted injuries to handlers or unnecessary damage to machinery and equipment. 

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve also taken the time to answer some frequently asked questions that some of our readers have about opening shipping containers. We have answered them in detail below. 

Do I Open All Container Types & Sizes the Same Way?

Yes, all shipping containers following the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) guidelines that have two doors are opened the same way. This also applies to various container sizes and types, which you can find below:

  • General Container (20, 40 & 45-foot)
  • High Cube Container (20, 40 & 45-foot)
  • Open Top Container (20, 40 & 45-foot)
  • Reefer Container (20, 40 & 45-foot)

Do I Need Training to Open Shipping Containers?

While you are not legally required to attend any training or course to open shipping containers, we highly recommend that you adhere to your company’s training policies pertaining to your scope of work. 

You should always practice opening a shipping container that is empty and not laden so that you won’t have the risk of cargo toppling over during practice. Observe experienced colleagues and ensure that you wear the appropriate safety equipment. 

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Gerrit Poel

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Gerrit is a certified international supply chain management professional with 16 years of industry experience, having worked for one of the largest global freight forwarders.

As the co-founder of freightcourse, he’s committed to his passion for serving as a source of education and information on various supply chain topics.