Accurate Container Weights Remain a Safety Concern

Stephen DeAngelis

November 2, 2012

Everyone involved in the maritime container shipping industry understands that declaring accurate container weights improves “the safety of container ships, their crews, shoreside personnel involved in the handling and transport of containers, and other cargo aboard the ship.” That’s why back “in December 2010, the World Shipping Council (WSC) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) jointly urged the IMO to establish an international legal requirement that all loaded containers be weighed at the marine port facility before stowage aboard a vessel for export.” [“Global Shipping Organizations Commend the IMO for Agreeing to Solve the Problem of Misdeclared Container Weights,” The Maritime Executive, 31 May 2011] As a result, the “Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO (MSC 89) agreed to a proposal made by the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia to establish a new work item to address the issue of incorrectly declared containerized cargo shipments and to undertake other measures to improve the safety of container stowage and ship operations.” As the headline of The Maritime Executive article declares, most stakeholders in the shipping industry hailed the IMO decision and looked forward to the future. The article continued:

“WSC and ICS, along with many IMO Member States and representative bodies for seafarers, dockworkers and masters, support this initiative that demonstrates the compelling need to address the problem. Verification of actual container weight before vessel loading and the availability of the actual container weights for proper and safe stowage planning will mark a long overdue and important improvement in industry safety. WSC and ICS look forward to assisting the IMO to institute a new set of requirements to accomplish this as soon as possible.”

The paper submitted to MSC 89 by the WSC and ICS laid out the following arguments about why accurate weights are critical for the safe handling and transportation of containers:

“Containers that are ‘overweight’, i.e. that weigh more than the declared weight provided by the shipper, can create safety concerns for the ship, its crew, other cargo on board, and the workers in the port facilities handling the container. Incorrectly declared weights, both over and significantly below the limits declared, also lead to incorrect stowage planning and implementation, and operational problems. Less frequently, containers can be loaded beyond the maximum gross weight indicated on the Safety Approval Plate. All of these situations present safety and operational concerns. There is no available data that reliably indicates how many containers have an incorrectly declared weight; however, the problem is significant, and arises in almost every trade to some extent. In some geographic trade lanes, the problem is common and, at times, rampant. The problems resulting from mis-declared container weights include the following:

  1. incorrect vessel stowage decisions;
  2. re-stowage of containers (and resulting delays and costs), if the overweight condition is ascertained;
  3. collapsed container stacks;
  4. containers lost overboard (both those overweight and containers that were not overweight);
  5. cargo liability claims;
  6. chassis damage;
  7. damage to ships;
  8. stability and stress risks for ships;
  9. risk of personal injury or death to seafarers and shoreside workers;
  10. impairment of service schedule integrity;
  11. supply chain service delays for shippers of properly declared containers;
  12. last minute shut-outs of confirmed, booked and available loads when the actual weight on board exceeds what is declared, and the total cargo weight exceeds the vessel limit or port draft limit;
  13. lost revenue and earnings;
  14. liability for accidents and fines for overweight containers on roads, and resulting time and administrative efforts and costs to seek reimbursement from responsible parties;
  15. impairment of vessels’ optimal trim and draft, thus causing impaired vessel efficiency, suboptimal fuel usage, and greater vessel air emissions; and
  16. mis-declared weights can also deprive Customs authorities of revenues in cases where duties or tariffs are applied by weight measurement of a commodity.

“In short, such containers present a risk to industry workers, to ships, to equipment, to operational reliability and to accurately declared shipments.”

Those arguments should have been sufficient to convince anyone of the need for accurately weighing and reporting container weights. Unfortunately, in September 2012, “two countries providing flags of convenience (FOC) to merchant vessels, Panama and Cyprus, threw up roadblocks to the safe carriage of containerized cargo.” [“Flags of Convenience: Making Cargo Safety Inconvenient,” by Richard Madden, The Maritime Executive, 28 September 2012] Madden reports:

“With over 80% of world cargo being moved on container ships and those ships getting ever larger, any measure that can make these shipments safer must be considered. Sadly, these countries find that some proposed measures are inconvenient. The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Sub-Committee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers wrapped up its most recent meeting on 21 September 2012. Among the items on the agenda were measures to prevent the loss of containers at sea. Two proposals were submitted to the Sub-Committee requiring accurate container weights – one from a coalition of the World Shipping Council (WSC) and numerous industry advocacy groups and countries, and the other from Germany. … The two proposals differed in that the WSC proposal required the actual weighing of the stuffed container whereas the German proposal would also allow the calculation of the container weight by the shipper based on the tare weight of the container and the weight of the contents. While neither proposal received overwhelming support, member state delegations agreed that amendments to SOLAS were required to increase the responsibility of the shipper in regard to the declaration of container weights.”

Madden writes that, in order to underscore its case, the WSC had published a paper in December 2011 in which it reported that “serious maritime casualties, including the capsizing of one vessel and structural failure of another, as well as significant cargo and vessel damage, can be directly attributed to misdeclared container weights. In some instances, the actual weight of containers was up to 350% higher than declared.” The delay in requiring accurate container weights is going be significant (if it is ever enacted). Madden reports:

“Due to ‘technical objections’ by the delegations from Panama, Cyprus and Greece, further discussion on this matter has been pushed to a correspondence group with another report due in September 2013. At this point, the earliest a SOLAS amendment requiring the accurate weighing or declaration of weight of a container might come into effect is 2017.”

Those countries should feel nothing but shame for their actions. The TT Club, a London-based mutual insurance association, has “urged all participants at the International Maritime Organization’s session on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers to redouble their efforts to come up with a global regulation to verify the weights of containers.” [“TT Club Urges Container Weight Verification,” by HButler, JOC Sailings, 2 October 2012] The insurer insists that “such a regulation is crucial to the safety of container ships in view of the fact that the erroneous declaration of container weights has been identified in a number of recent high-profile maritime disasters such as those involving the MSC Napoli, Riverdance and Husky Racer.” Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club’s risk management director, told meeting participants, “The Club is in a unique position to speak on this issue, insuring not only something in excess of 80 percent of all maritime containers but also with an insurable interest in ports handling around 50 percent of the world’s containerized freight. While the immediate debate is only part of an overall cargo integrity matrix that demands our attention, the Club has noted numerous accidents both at sea and on land, where weight misdeclaration is a material root cause.” Storrs-Fox went on to say, “Further delay in this modest legal change is frustrating, particularly since there was substantial consensus concerning acceptable ways to ensure that weight declarations are accurate.” Butler continues:

“The TT Club said it believes valuable progress was made leading to the recommendation to amend SOLAS (the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) to require that freight containers should not be loaded on board a ship without a verified weight.”

Although this problem has not been widely reported in the press, it deserves more attention. Higher insurance rates, loss of inventory, and other associated costs are all passed on to consumers. But the non-monetary benefits (i.e., the saving of life and limb), is even more important. You really can’t put a price on the value of someone’s life. Public outcry might help persuade recalcitrant nations to get on board with the regulation. Storrs-Fox is optimistic and believes “the delay will be insubstantial”; so he is encouraging “shippers, forwarders, freight consolidators and terminals to start planning for this reality” right away.