Container Weighing – decision time?


  • Date: 12/09/2013

As the maritime world forms up to debate the future of container weighing at the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers Sub-committee (DSC) in September 2013, Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club’s Risk Management Director, reviews the landscape and makes an assessment of how historians may in years to come judge the supply chain industry.

Amending international maritime law is hardly ever a racy process, but seeing such a change implemented in about a decade may be seen by some as a worthy concentration of minds. Of course, the roots of tolerance in the unit load industry concerning what is packed in the ubiquitous box go back to its infancy, but the issue of the accuracy of weight declaration gained visibility at the IMO following the ‘MSC Napoli’ incident in 2007 and the presentation of the  MARIN (Maritime Research Institute Netherlands) ‘Lashing@Sea’ report in 2010, with the way-marker of the ‘Safe Transport of Container by Sea – Guidelines on Best Practices’ compiled by the World Shipping Council and International Chamber of Shipping.

Specific proposals were closely debated by DSC last September, only to be delayed due to the absence of guidance to accommodate the plethora of operational variations around the globe. The intervening period has been spent seeking to negotiate these and answer concerns expressed by stakeholders across the entire supply chain.

In a nutshell, the proposed legal change appears slight. The fundamental responsibility continues to rest with the shipper to provide accurate weight information, with the added obligation to ‘verify the gross mass’ in a signed shipping document. The Master will in future not be permitted to load a container lacking a verified gross mass, and, perhaps logically, the marine terminal is twinned with this obligation.

Much of the debate has circled round whether the means by which the gross mass is verified should be more than purely weighing a packed container. An alternative, put forward by the German delegation to the IMO, suggested ‘weighing by calculation’. This relies on an improved, more reliable version of the current process whereby those responsible for packing the container calculate the mass of each item of cargo stowed in the container, plus the mass of pallets, dunnage and other securing material, in order to reach the sum of these values to provide a total mass of what is packed.  When added to the known tare mass of the empty container this would produce an accurate ‘gross mass’ of the packed unit.

For those heading to Albert Embankment in London the hopes are high that the general consensus that inaccuracy of weight declaration in the industry compromises safety and efficiency will deliver agreement. Concerns may remain as to whether the implementation will in all respects be appropriate and proportionate, as well as whether all practical situations can be or have been accommodated.

Shipper organisations have argued that the deadline for the supply of information should be defined, rather than ‘sufficiently in advance’ to allow effective stowage planning. Persuasively, the liner response has been that the finalisation of a ship stowage plan depends on ship type and size, local port loading procedures and other operational factors, while recognising that it is the carrier’s responsibility to inform the shipper of any specific time deadline for submitting information. In a world increasingly focused on ‘advanced cargo information’ it has to be asked what the concern really is.

What is abundantly apparent is that, despite well-established electronic means, integrated communications need substantial upgrade. Booking information will frequently be provisional, but should be seamlessly updated in all relevant systems at the point that the gross weight is known. What is commonly referred to as 'misdeclared' is as likely to be 'poorly communicated'.

A more thorny issue remains: should there be a tolerance for any difference found between actual and declared gross mass? A neat side-step appears to require the stakeholders merely to take the latest verified gross mass. However, behind this must be spectres of fraudulent activity or simply differing standards adopted by competent authorities around the globe. It is already apparent that certain countries accept tolerance of up to 5%, which may well not be acceptable elsewhere.

Adopting the latest verified gross mass has the potential advantage that there is no need to handle ‘exceptions’ – beyond those units that are unable to move because they are actually overloaded or overweight. For the most part, it may be expected that this will be resolved commercially between the parties, particularly the carriers and their terminal operators. Ports are designed for smooth throughput and rely on minimal dwell time. A new, but possibly lucrative, reality will be that ports and terminals become the effective 'policemen'; a check-weigh process is almost inevitable to ensure their own and carriers’ compliance, as well as supporting other enforcement or fiscal agencies. Twistlock load sensing technology, deployed in the terminal container yard, is in pole position to facilitate minimal supply chain disruption.

Regulatory rigour will bring with it modest additional costs and challenges, which will primarily be faced by shippers and forwarders. Conversely, ocean carriers will be able to optimise stowage and capacity for paid freight, and even terminals may achieve material efficiency gains.

This change is merely a small part of a broader safety context; the safe packing of cargo in containers – the subject of another IMO debate this September – is arguably more critical in avoiding container related incidents. It must be expected that IMO will endorse container weighing, leading to probable implementation in January 2017, even while the more substantial grail of the CTU Packing Code is pursued.

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