TT Talk - Dangerous goods alert

  • Date: 04/12/2003
  • Source: TT Talk 38

In recent years at least six big container ships have been seriously damaged by major fires or explosions. Apart from the loss of life and injury to seafarers, each accident caused millions of dollars of damages. Experts attribute most of these incidents to hazardous materials that were loaded into containers but not declared to the carriers.

Acting under the provisions of the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the International Maritime Organization has now made regulations requiring all signatory states to give the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) code the force of national law by 1st January, and subsequent amendments as they come into effect. From then on it will be mandatory for shippers and carriers throughout the world to comply with the requirements of the IMDG code, as a matter of legal duty. Up to now, compliance has only been mandatory under national laws or regulations of some countries - although, of course, all responsible shippers and carriers take care to make sure their movements of hazardous goods are packed, loaded, marked and declared in accordance with the code. In some countries failure to comply with the code is a criminal offence for which companies can be heavily fined.


The IMO reports that over 95% of the world’s ships are carrying dangerous goods in accordance with the IMDG Code but that does not mean that carriage is in accordance with the latest version. It is a sad fact that many transport operators, ship’s agents and even ship operators do not have the latest edition of the IMDG code available, nor are people in the business as informed as they should be about the regulations. With application of the rules becoming mandatory and non-compliance punishable by serious fines, all operators involved with hazardous material shipments must make sure that they are operating in accordance with the current (Amendment 31) version. Even if they are not fined, companies may well find consignments containing hazardous materials refused shipment, off-loaded at the first port of call or subject to expensive costs for rendering the material safe or disposal, Although primarily aimed at ship operators, the code of course extends to everyone dealing with hazardous goods; it contains detailed requirements for the type of packing to be used, which commodities can be loaded together and what must be segregated, how they are to be marked and how they are to be declared. The latest edition of the code can be ordered, in both hard copy and electronic format from the IMO’s publications section Members may also obtain checks on the proper declarations for hazardous materials from Exis Technologies Ltd on their website Afree on-line service is currently on offer. Members will be aware that their insurance with the Club contains a requirement that they exercise best endeavours to comply with dangerous goods regulations.


The IMO figure probably also masks the fact that some shippers are still prepared to put seafarers’ lives at risk, and endanger others in the transport chain, by failing to properly pack, secure, stow, label or declare hazardous cargoes in accordance with the regulations. If the shipper does not tell the carrier what has been loaded, the carrier will not be able to take the appropriate precautions in stowing the box properly. The consequences are obvious: a ship at sea cannot jettison a burning container if it is located deep down in the stow. Worse still, if other containers are also loaded with non-declared hazardous materials, they are likely to catch fire too. The Club is aware of consignments of gas lighters which were not only undeclared but also badly made, so they leaked explosive gases in the container; and of fireworks being declared as “children’s toys”. With highly flammable cargoes like this being loaded inadvertently below deck, it is extremely fortunate that there have not been more major ship casualties. If undeclared hazardous material does create a problem, the vessel operator is likely to hold its client responsible, as the latter is under a strict legal duty to warrant that cargo is fit for carriage. Where the ship operator’s client is an NVOC, it will be down to the NVOC to recoup the costs from the consignor who was ultimately responsible. Unfortunately, if the shipper is the sort of company willing to save money by hiding the hazardous nature of its products, it is also unlikely to have any third-party liability cover. All of which rather leaves the NVOC exposed to a potential multi-million dollar claim. Members should be alert to the possibility that both FCL and LCL shipments may contain hazardous materials, and that the shipper may either deliberately, mistakenly, or even innocently mask the true nature, identity, and condition of the contents. To minimise the likelihood of a disaster everybody in the transport chain must exercise their best endeavours to ensure proper adherence to the IMDG requirements within their own operation. They should also promote the observance of the code and national safety standards by their clients. This can never be achieved without self-alert, supervision, staff training, and a good system to check and appraise clients and sub-contractors.

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