TT Talk - End the 'brinkmanship' - avoiding 'urban myths'

Now gripped in the headlights of impending mandatory enforcement of the requirements to provide and use verified gross mass (VGM) data for packed containers, many parts of the stakeholder community appear uncertain of how this can work out globally. Each link in the chain needs to take individual responsibility for their own scope of activity and engage with others to enhance the integrity of the whole supply chain. Many national competent authorities and industry players appear to lack thought leadership.

In setting out the precise composition of gross mass for the purposes of SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) - which will necessarily differ from other mass requirements, such as customs - it could be argued little has changed. The additional requirements of a signed shipping document on which the VGM value is recorded and the joint responsibility of the terminal (with the carrier) to receive and use this information reflect the reality that packed containers are inherently mysterious.

What is 'verified'?

Perhaps as great a mystery is the speed with which 'urban myths' and misunderstandings of this well-intentioned legislation have multiplied. Take, for example, the different interpretations (between English speaking nationals) of the term 'verified'.

  • A British dictionary (Oxford) defines the verb as:
    'to make sure or demonstrate that (something) is true, accurate, or justified'
  • Whereas the US dictionary (Merriam-Webster) defines it as:
    'to confirm or substantiate in law by oath'

"VGM requires a 'formal statement of the gross mass' of the packed container"

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a UN organization, it is the US variant that is now embedded in this international convention, meaning a 'formal statement of the gross mass' of the packed container. For this same reason, it is best to adopt the word 'verified' (referring to a finished process from which the formal statement can be made) rather than 'verification', which could imply a requirement for a checking process. While good practice (or continued abuse) might prefer some form of checking, the legislation does not require this: once VGM is communicated, others are entitled to rely on it in good faith.

Accuracy to avoid being penalised

Another common misconception has arisen from the UK MCA's deliberate use of 'enforcement threshold' in

MGN 534

. It has been suggested that the reference to 5% gave licence to little or no improvement in accuracy overall. Netherlands has suggested that this enforcement be qualified by adding ±500 kilos to the threshold for gross masses below 10 tonnes, which appears sensible. However, this articulation does not at all set the expected standard for 'margin of error' for the industry players - shippers, carriers or terminals.

It is difficult to express this issue better than has been done by AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) in a recent consultation process:

"Regarding the intended minimum accuracy standards - [AMSA] intend to use existing national methods to identify accuracy of weighing devices. The standards all relate to how many increments of accuracy are achieved. A device weighs a maximum mass in increments and the relationship between the size of the increments and the maximum capacity is what is looked at rather than a blanket percentage being applied to every reading. This is a more realistic measurement of accuracy and since it is in use [in Australia] (and internationally) in accuracy standards, [AMSA] will use these principles as well. Use of a fixed percentage such as say +/- 5% to every measuring device will not result in suitably accurate masses for ship safety..."

Latest discussions in northern Europe concerning the level of accuracy that is appropriate in the containerised transport supply chain appear to be leading towards agreement of 2% margin for containers with a gross mass exceeding 15 tonnes and ±300 kilos at lower gross masses. This would be pragmatic, achievable in most scenarios and could leave sufficient 'wriggle room' before an enforcement action is likely.

However, such standards need to be acceptable for certification and calibration of weighing equipment in the jurisdiction where it is being used. Nevertheless, should these two factors (enforcement threshold and minimum accuracy standards) be agreed soon, the industry and regulators globally will be significantly assisted in getting over the line for 1 July 2016.

"accuracy standards need to be acceptable for certification and calibration of weighing equipment in the jurisdiction where it is being used"

Equipment has to be capable

Linked to this is an assumption that all lifting equipment is capable of providing satisfactory measurement. Unless specifically defined, this is almost certainly not the case; historic measurement has been focused on safe working loads, and will consequently have been set with far more lax accuracy. Regardless, all equipment will have to be calibrated and certified in accordance with national regulations where it is used - again more stringent requirements.

"equipment will have to be calibrated and certified in accordance with national regulations where it is used"

While, under SOLAS, VGM is only required for use in the ship planning process to engender safety in the maritime mode, it is clearly safest to establish the gross mass of the freight before commencement of the journey. Indeed, in many jurisdictions there will be existing national legislation in relation to weight, particularly for road carriage. Thus, obtaining VGM during or at the completion of the packing process is ideal. Where VGM cannot easily be obtained at this packing point, implementing methods en route to the port or at the terminal are acceptable alternatives - and possibly reflect the unit load reality that there should be no material change in mass during the entire anticipated transit.

Experience after 1 July 2016 will no doubt inform the industry; for now, it is critical to create a mind-set of finding solutions and collaborating with counter-parties. Only the individual stakeholder can evaluate their own circumstances, working positively to achieve compliance. TT Club, together with the other sponsors who prepared the Industry

FAQ document

, remains committed to help identify solutions and promote connections so that trade continues successfully.

We hope that you have found the above interesting. If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any colleagues who you may feel would be interested.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Peregrine Storrs-Fox
Risk Management Director, TT Club

Staff Author

TT Club