TT Talk - Why is the weighing of containers an issue?

There are two key parts to the shipper obligations in maritime trade (Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS), Chapter VI, Part A, Regulation 2). The first is to provide ‘appropriate information on the cargo sufficiently in advance of loading to enable… proper loading’ of the ship. The second is to ensure that the gross mass presented to the ship is as declared.

It is clear that many shippers understand the importance of the current requirements in relation not only to safety at sea but also to any inland legs of the supply chain, and take steps to comply. Of course, the requirements are generally consistent with the ‘Advanced Cargo Information’ implemented by a growing number of countries and at least partially aligned with domestic legislation regulating the weight of containers carried on land by road or rail in a number of jurisdictions.

So – given that weight mis-declaration has been identified in a number of high-profile cases, such as ‘MSC Napoli’, ‘Riverdance’ and ‘Husky Racer’, and the TT Club has repeatedly noted numerous accidents (including inland), which may not have been given widespread reporting but where this type of mis-declaration is a material root cause – why should this be a problem for a 50 year old industry?

It may seem simplistic to offer some answers, but here goes!

Workflow difficulties

Clearly, the logical place to ensure that the gross mass of a consignment packed in a container is correctly declared is prior to the commencement of its transport – the point when packing is complete. Apart from the fact that this rarely happens, the reality of trade is that the consignment weight is generally estimated at the time of booking the container. That detail enters the line’s system, available for use in ship stowage planning, clearly satisfying the first part of Regulation 2.

The weight of the cargo should be correctly declared in the carriage contract, but may well not be correlated with the estimate given at the time of booking or corrected for the stow plan. However, the contract of carriage mass will not generally take account of the tare weight of the container nor dunnage and other packing materials. So, even if this does satisfy the second key aspect of Regulation 2 (that the gross mass declared and presented are the same), it may not be sufficiently in advance of loading.

Ineffective enforcement

The regime covering any inland transport prior to loading on board a ship will inevitably be governed by domestic legislation – indeed, for some land masses around the globe, there could be a series of differing regulations applicable before the container reaches the seaside. There is, however, no simple international legal mechanism by which to achieve consistent regulation on land. Conversely, SOLAS, developed under the auspices of the IMO, does have effective international reach – and there can be no doubt that the obligations already imposed on shippers are material to the port/ship interface. Thus, while other UN bodies (such as ILO or UNECE) could legislate on this issue, the IMO is well-placed and there is precedent within SOLAS by which revisions automatically come into force after a certain period in all signatory jurisdictions without further implementing instruments.

In view of the fact that the vast majority of containers packed and sealed inland will arrive at their foreign destination without being opened in transit, the TT Club would argue that validation of the correct declaration of gross mass for the maritime mode will equate to correct declaration for every other mode. Therefore, SOLAS can be both legally and practically effective – but has hitherto been relatively ‘toothless’, probably because enforcement against shippers is at best difficult.

Perception that weight is peripheral

It is accepted that the issue of mis-declaration of container weight is just one of the safety issues facing the industry. The MARIN ‘Lashing@Sea’ report made a number of recommendations (of which verification of weight was one), whose aggregated aim was to 'reduce uncertainties' in ship stowage. The IMO has sought submissions on the other issues, which can be summarised as

(a) strengthening requirements in relation to lashing gear (including annual inspection)

(b) improving the adequacy of information in relation to stacking of containers and

(c) providing effective and interactive information to the ship's crew in relation to ship performance and stresses (identifying hull flexing and stack dynamics during a voyage).

Even recognising that weight mis-declaration is just one of many issues, any argument that ship lashing is a more major cause misses the point, since lashing in accordance with the ship's securing manual is intrinsically calculated on the basis of the weight of individual containers in the stow and the stack weights.

Inevitably, some containers will be mis-stowed on the ship – the MAIB ‘MSC Napoli’ report identified that up to 10% of the units were in the wrong place. While mistakes will happen, the contractual relationship between the line and the terminal mean that there is an in-built improvement process; this has not been the case with inaccurate weight declaration.

In the absence of regulatory revision, forwarders and carriers need to be vigilant. When presented with a request to quote to load containers with 53 tonnes of cargo the answer may be obvious; where it is simply cargo of irregular mass (such as hides or rolls of fabric, or LCL) greater care needs to be taken. It’s back to ‘know your shipper’.

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