Verification of Gross Mass – Who Must Weigh In?

  • Date: 28/09/2015

TT Club’s Peregrine Storrs-Fox outlines the responsibilities of those engaged in container transport to prepare effectively the amendment to SOLAS (the Convention for Safety of Life at Sea) which becomes mandatory on 1st July next year.

Seasoned FBJ readers will recall my article last December detailing the significance of the Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO’s decision to adopt the amendment concerning the verification of gross mass (VGM) of each and every packed container. 

The implications of this relatively modest change to SOLAS, that in essence reiterates the shippers’ responsibility to declare gross mass accurately, are reverberating through the international transport community. July 2016 is not far away, particularly when one considers the importance to the industry to develop consistency as to the acceptable ways, and common standards, to confirm calibration and certification for both weighing the packed container (‘Method 1’) and ensuring the correct calculation of the sum of all constituent parts of a packed unit (‘Method 2’) as called for in the amendment.

As often, the ‘devil is in the detail’ of implementation and there are various stakeholders who bear levels of responsibility to ensure that the venture is successful. Although the amendment mandating VGM only overtly names the ‘shipper’, the ‘master’ and the ‘terminal representative’, and – by implication – the competent authorities, there are a plethora of potential players in the supply chain that are not specifically drawn into the scope of the new regulation but must still be aware of the need for accurate certification.

The shipper
By the complex nature of all things logistics, the ‘shipper’ may encompass a range of people involved in the contracting, packing and transporting of cargo. However, the key commercial relationship in question is between the entity whose name is placed on the ocean carrier’s bill of lading. Thus, in many cases, the responsibility for actual ‘verified’ declaration will rest with a freight forwarder, logistics operator or NVOC.

Apart from having a sustainable method by which the gross mass is verified, the shipper also needs to communicate it (‘signed’ meaning that there is an accountable person) in advance of the preparation of the ship’s stow plan. The information will be sent by the shipper to the carrier, but with joint service arrangements there may be a number of carriers involved, with one taking responsibility to consolidate the manifest information, in addition to communication with the terminal. Adding a level of complication, there is no precise time by which the information needs to be communicated, due to differing requirements around the globe – although Advance Cargo Information requirements may already be bringing timing forward for many shipments.

The master
This character in the process is not only the person standing on the ship’s bridge but also a number of functions within the carrier’s organisation.  With joint services, the actual operator of the ship will be the one taking the lead role.

Implicit in the SOLAS amendment is that the carrier sets in place processes that ensure that VGM is available and used in planning the ship stow. Arguably, each carrier will need to amend systems and processes to capture additional information (such as whether the shipper is using Method 1 or Method 2 and fields for booked, declared, verified and even measured gross mass). However, the simplest might be to amend the booking process, so that the gross mass information is left blank in the system until ‘verified’ data are available. This will be effective if it is clearly understood by all service partners with whom the carrier communicates. Clear and enforced procedures will be key.

The explicit obligation of the master is simply that he shall not load a container for which the VGM is not available. This does not mean that one with a VGM is guaranteed to be loaded, since that would derogate from the traditional rights of a master.

The terminal representative
Recognising the pivotal nature of the port interface, the terminals have been drawn into the new regulation as recipients of information for ship stow planning and, critically, in a joint responsibility not to load a container on board a ship if the VGM is not available.

There has been considerable debate as to whether terminals need to position themselves to be able to weigh containers, not least because of the cost of creating appropriate infrastructure, and amending systems and procedures, with an uncertain return on investment. In most terminals, the commercial relationship is with the carrier alone, although there are many parts of the world where containers are packed at the port, in which case the terminal activities will in future include assisting the shipper in producing the VGM.

Competent authority
Responsibility is placed on the national administrations to set up or implement appropriate standards for calibration (weights and measures regulations) and ways of certifying. The named parties will rely on this to work smoothly and, preferably, consistently on a global basis in order that trade is not disrupted.

Clarity of such processes needs to be matched by consistency in enforcement. Talk of ‘tolerances’ is disingenuous. SOLAS calls for accuracy. Everyone appreciates that some cargo and packing material may be hygroscopic, thereby potentially increasing mass during the journey, but that need not mask fraudulent activity, nor entice over-zealous enforcement. The UK Marine Guidance Note* may be instructive here, stating that enforcement action will only be volunteered where the difference between documented and actual weight exceeds a threshold.

It is suggested that success of the revised SOLAS regulation will be achieved only if ALL in the supply chain are aware of the need to comply; so as it’s not a matter of ‘Who must weigh in? … Not me!’

*MGN 534 published by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency

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