Verified Gross Mass (VGM) – How will it be achieved?

  • Date: 03/12/2015

In the October edition of Containerisation International TT Club’s Peregrine Storrs-Fox looked at the parties within the supply chain who will have responsibility for the Verified Gross Mass (VGM) of packed containers when this becomes mandatory on 1 July next year. 

In this, Part Three of his analysis of the implications of the amendment to SOLAS (the Convention for Safety of Life at Sea), he looks at the various options available in achieving compliance with the requirement to obtain and use the VGM, and the complexity of imposing the regulation uniformly across the trading world. In this regard, there are two key strands to be considered:
• where accurate gross mass is not currently able to be verified, identifying the available technology and processes by which it can be obtained;
• amendment of systems and processes to ensure that VGM is correctly handled between the stakeholders.

As should be expected when regulations are tightened, attention has turned to the means by which stakeholders will achieve compliance, including parties that could provide solutions. This requirement – to obtain verified gross mass accurately and communicate it through the container supply chain – is no exception. Innovations are materialising in relation to the methods of achieving a verified gross mass, as well as consideration of the processes that will support the transmission and use of this new information.

Obtaining VGM
While the regulatory change in relation to verified gross mass of packed containers is articulated in the international maritime legislation – SOLAS – there is no doubt that ideally the accurate gross mass needs to be determined at the point that the container packing is completed, prior to the first part of the journey starting. The probability of incidents and injury is far greater on land, albeit that the potential impact arising from a containership incident is significant.

Despite the importance of knowing weight (and distribution) of cargo before it enters a road or rail network, much attention has so far been towards delivering functional and efficient innovations at the port area to ensure that weighing can be done without disruption to operational flows.

There may be substantial logic in this concentration at the port, since a container once packed may be expected generally to proceed from origin to destination without the cargo gross mass changing materially. As a result, the port is arguably a key nodal point at which to check or establish VGM prior to planning and loading a ship. Indeed, it may be reasonable to question whether there is an implied duty within the revised regulation to check the verified weight. On the face of it, all parties should be able to rely in good faith on the veracity of the verified gross mass given by the shipper, but accurate declaration has been embedded in the regulation already.

There are many who argue that the port may not be an appropriate place to obtain VGM. In part, this reflects concerns that the required processes would fundamentally undermine the modern port’s raison d’être to facilitate uninterrupted cargo flow. This is an undoubted challenge, not just to handle the sheer volume but also deal with any exceptions. Furthermore, while ‘advance cargo information’ requirements are generally 24 hours or more before ship loading, certain trades rely on an ability to deliver packed containers to the port shortly before loading on board the designated ship, which could preclude effective stow planning based on VGM obtained at the port. Nevertheless, the IMO Guidelines* permit stakeholders to base controls at the port interface.

In many commercial settings, shippers may choose not to opt for Method 2, as laid down by the SOLAS amendment as ‘weighing all constituent parts in the load’ and then adding this to the given tare weight of the container.  Indeed, the IMO Guidelines already stipulate that it is ‘inappropriate and impractical’ to use Method 2 for certain cargoes, such as scrap metal, unbagged grain and other cargo in bulk. For these, which necessarily will include flexitank and ISO tank container movements, shippers will need to implement Method 1 – weighing the packed unit – in order to satisfy their responsibility.

Accuracy and simplicity of weighing early in or prior to commencing the movement may be a challenge. Equipment capable of weighing the packed container will typically not be available at the packing warehouses; such equipment is most likely found at nodal points (railheads or ports) or positioned on key routes leading to ports. However, traditional weighbridges – assuming that enough capacity is available – have to make assumptions about the remainder of the rig, including fuel, which results in inaccuracy or requires time-consuming and burdensome processes to obtain the VGM of each individual packed container. ‘Weigh in motion’ systems may offer some benefits. While it is known that some are investigating the possibility of durable compression fittings for trailer twistlocks, this would require adoption by a trucking industry that is hard-pressed and not legally spliced to this SOLAS requirement. However weighing between packing warehouse and port may be achieved, it is necessary to consider the workflow and contractual nexus – the shipper remains responsible for communicating VGM, while the trucker or other transporter is generally contracted by the carrier.

With impeccable logic, the SOLAS revision requires that any apparatus utilised must be ‘calibrated and certified’ in the particular jurisdiction in which it is used. This draws upon the reasonable expectation that buying a kilo of tomatoes in Vladivostok will be comparable with a similar purchase in Buenos Aires or that the constitution of a café latte will be consistent wherever. The issue here is that, while weights and measures regulations will generally already exist, there is currently insufficient clarity as to whether or to what extent the SOLAS regulations fall under legal metrology control in individual states. This may discourage innovators faced by the potential of having to meet differing standards around the globe or even by protectionist barriers.

The capability of weighing equipment, whether in respect of ‘Method 1’ (the packed container) or ‘Method 2’ (the sum of all the constituent parts), has traditionally been more aligned towards safe working load requirements, that are far less exacting than what might be expected for ‘calibrated and certified’ purposes. In this regard, Method 2 shippers may be better placed to implement a certified methodology that can be approved in the relevant state.

Handling VGM
Once obtained, VGM needs to be used in shipping documents and the ship stow planning process – and without it, the packed container may not be loaded onto a ship. Much of commerce may be expected to rely on ‘EDI transmission techniques’, for which amendments are already in hand (but will still need to be implemented between the stakeholders and their partners).
Assuming that there is consistent adoption of such standards, it continues to be necessary for controls to be in place to ensure that VGM is available and used. While existing contractual terms may be robust enough, there may be implicit control elements where differing values are valid for diverse purposes. For example, mass for customs documents or dangerous goods notes diverge from VGM. Equally,  contractors with VGM could be expected to consider related regulations (such as whether overweight under the CSC plating or overloaded for the entirety of the surface transportation), as well as to apply a reality check – if N pallets or widgets are verified at one mass, can a similar shipment subsequently be verified substantially differently? Thus, ensuring the correct value is available and used may spawn comparisons for broader validations.

In most jurisdictions it may be anticipated that much of the enforcement will be left with industry stakeholders, with the terminals effectively and explicitly drawn in to maintain honesty.

At this point, in advance of implementation, the single key message has to be communication between all counterparties. Although the transitional period started when IMO adopted the revision in November 2014 (and was well-telegraphed years beforehand), mandated implementation is now scarcely more than six months away.

What might have appeared a relatively innocent change has significant implications; not only is gross mass integral to many aspects of international trade, but a verified value necessarily improves integrity of related supply chain processes. Material collateral benefits may be anticipated, particularly as the industry absorbs the CTU Code. As the industry grapples with the fine detail, let’s hope that necessity being the mother of invention will bring safety to birth.

* (MSC Circ.1475)

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