IMO Looks at Container Shipping Safety as Freight Forwarders, Shippers and Unions Plead Their Case

Monday, September 16, 2013

UK – WORLDWIDE – The meeting this week at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) headquarters in London, at the hearing of the Sub-Committee on Dangerous Goods, Solid cargoes and Containers (DSC), is of special interests to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of shippers, shipping lines and freight forwarding companies around the globe. Stakeholders representatives from every part of the industry associated with container shipping are lobbying hard to promote their members interests.

The subject which many will focus, and possibly disagree on, is the weighing of containers prior to shipping, overweight and inappropriately stowed boxes being a problem which costs lives, as well as money, all over the world. When the industry switched its general ocean cargo sector over to a predominantly container based system of carriage it effectively removed the responsibility of ensuring goods were correctly loaded from established wharfingers and dockers, and placed them with individual organisations, often many miles from the sea.

Now, some decades after the seismic shift which both assisted and encouraged the growth of international trade, the IMO is looking at ways to ensure that accidents caused by overweight and misdeclared containers are minimised by setting out a protocol and amending the existing Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS). The meeting this week will decide if the weighing of packed shipping containers will be made mandatory, something which objectors say will have time and financial consequences. The SOLAS Convention places existing responsibilities on shippers to declare the accurate weight and details of the consignment and two options are being proposed as possible amendments.

The proposed amendments strengthen the responsibilities of shippers to verify the weight by weighing the packed container (method one), or weighing all packages and cargo items, including the mass of pallets, dunnage and other securing material to be packed in the container and adding the tare of the container to the sum of the single masses, using a certified method approved by the competent authority of the State in which packing of the container was to be completed (method two).

Transport unions worldwide have been lobbying via the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) for nearly a decade for a compulsory international system of container weighing to be introduced in ports rather than the current reliance on self-regulation by shippers. The ITF proposed amendment stipulates that there should be an international law requiring mandatory weighing of loaded containers, a process in place to address misdeclaration of container weights, and that ships’ masters should be able to refuse to load un- or misdeclared containers.

This ITF amendment is supported by the United States and Danish governments as well as industry bodies including The World Shipping Council (WSC), and The Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO). The ITF is urging other country and industry representatives to demonstrate their commitment to worker and public safety standards by backing the SOLAS amendment.

Meanwhile the Global Shippers’ Forum (GSF), which represents the interests of shippers’ councils across the world (including the Freight Transport Association) is calling on governments to support the second compromise proposal which it sees as the best practical option, saying it provides a flexible and workable solution which can be adopted by industry without significant cost or delays in the supply chain. GSF Secretary General, Chris Welsh, commented:

“An IMO Correspondence Group was established to draft an amendment to the SOLAS Convention to provide language for a mandatory requirement for verification of the gross weight of containers and Guidelines for implementation. They listened carefully to shippers’ arguments regarding appropriate methods for verification.

“This will be a key benefit for shippers using audit-based SAP systems as they will be able to adapt their existing systems to comply with their responsibility for obtaining and documenting the gross mass weight of a packed container. GSF maintains that the majority of shippers act responsibly and comply with their responsibilities to make accurate cargo declarations. However, a number of recent incidents have highlighted that weight misdeclarations may be on the rise. We believe that the IMO Correspondence Group proposals are sensible and proportionate and will lead to improved operational performance and enhanced safety within the maritime supply chain.”

Whatever the IMO decides it is to be hoped that the outcome will result in a safer supply chain, countless accidents have been caused through inappropriate loading and under declaration and ITF President and Chair of the ITF dockers section Paddy Crumlin emphasised the dangers of not reacting to a very real problem, saying:

“This is a key issue for transport workers worldwide. We estimate containers which are declared as one weight but in reality are substantially lighter or heavier, may be in the region of 20% of cargo. That presents a major health and safety risk to dockers loading and unloading in ports, to seafarers’ on-board cargo vessels, and to drivers transporting containers on the roads.

“But this isn’t just a worker issue. When a lorry jack knifes because it can’t handle the burden of the container, if a cargo ship splits in two because it’s been overloaded, when port equipment and infrastructure is prematurely worn down because of overweight containers then you have a major issue for the public, for the environment and for shipping companies. It is time for this issue to get the weighty response it deserves and we want to see governments and industry players get behind the SOLAS amendment so that an appropriate response to the issue can be delivered, via the IMO.”

Whatever is decided both schemes have their merits. Weighing at the quayside prior to loading gives the port an accurate, first-hand look at each box and should eliminate any possibility of poor stowage of a vessel. What it does not do of course is account for the weight when the container is collected at source and moved to the port, usually by road and often over a great distance. It would undoubtedly cause an element of delay and doubtless incur extra charges at a time when the industry is under pressure financially. Most shippers would not have the facilities required to physically weigh a box at their premises prior to despatch to the port.

The second option makes sense if every shipper’s honesty and competence can be taken for granted and opponents will say that, if that was the case, no amendment to SOLAS would be necessary. Extra charges would be minimised as the shipper would bear responsibility but each state would need to administrate the scheme to ensure suitable punishments were inflicted on those who transgress. This second option, being purely a documentary system, still leaves room for some of the mistakes which have had such tragic consequences in the past.