A Weighty Matter

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

08 April 2016


It is neither something that has just been sprung on the transport and logistics sector nor is it particularly hard to comply with, so for many within shipping why the question of container weighing is proving so controversial is something of a mystery. In June this year all containers carried on SOLAS ships will be required to have their gross mass verified or they will not be permitted to be loaded. This development is the culmination of many years of campaigning and pressure from within the shipping industry to tackle a problem that has plagued shipping for decades and caused loss of lives and property. The issue first made its way onto the agenda of the IMO in 2011 when work began in earnest to tackle the issue. The work culminated in the approval of the Guidelines regarding the verified gross mass of a container carrying cargo as set out in MSC.1/Circ.1475 and the adoption in 2014 of amendment to SOLAS regulation VI/2 to require the mandatory verification of the gross mass of packed containers (resolution MSC.380(94)). Overweight containers are nothing new, the issue has been around as long as the container ship and arguably even before that. When most liner cargo was carried on ‘tween deckers freight was calculated on either a weight or volume basis and while deck cargo was fairly common the idea that it could be stacked as high as it is on modern container ships was laughable. Misdeclared weight is encountered in almost every shipping sector, in dry bulk the weight in some trades is commonly over stated leading to claims for shortages against the carrier after discharge. In breakbulk and container trades the opposite is true with weight being frequently under declared so that the freight payable is less. Once this would have been because freight was payable on weight basis but even with FAK charges, a shipper may be tempted to exceed the maximum allowed weight if there is space still in the box so as to avoid having to make use of a second container for the excess. This can be a case of deliberate fraud but it is not always so and genuine errors are made. Regardless of the reason the result is that the carrier is not able to plan a safe stowage for their ship and the consequences for the ship, its crew, and dock workers can be tragic. The problems caused by misdeclared boxes are manifold. The issue of a safe stowage is the main problem. Boxes are stacked with the heaviest low down in the stack and lighter boxes higher up. This keeps the stack more stable as the acceleration forces are best countered, Mixing weights makes the stacks unstable and puts more strain on securing devices. Incidentally while most attention is paid to overweight boxes, there is also an issue with underweight units. These too will be allocated a stack position based on declared weight and by being placed lower down than they might need to have been, can also destabilise a stack. The worst outcome is that the stack collapses possibly causing a domino effect on nearby stacks. In these cases the ship is put at risk because of the potential for sudden loss of cargoes causing a list that may not be able to be corrected. Another outcome is that boxes will be lost overboard. Each year around 10,000 boxes are estimated to be lost from container ships with an obvious financial loss for shippers, carriers and insurance companies. The boxes also pose a hazard to shipping and could even damage an unrelated ship severely enough for it to be lost. There may also be an environmental impact that comes as a result of these lost containers if toxic cargo leaks into the marine environment. Even assuming the overweight boxes do not cause a worst case scenario problem, there can be an effect upon the fuel the ship consumes. You would have had to have been living in a bubble not to have witnessed the growth in software and systems aimed at ensuring a ship operates at optimum trim. Very few of these systems make use of real time data as regards the actual trim but take into account data from the stowage plan about the cargo and its distribution. Making decisions on incorrect data can mean wrong decisions are made and fuel consumption increases. Going beyond issues with the ship, all containers must make use of some other form of transport to arrive at the loading port. Most countries have weight limits for road vehicles and while not every overweight container will take a truck over the local legal limit many will. Protestations by shippers about the difficulty of complying with the new IMO rules suggest that many must have been flouting road haulage regulations since the requirement to certify weights are frequently very similar. For example, in the US the Intermodal Safe Container Transportation Act of 1992 and the Intermodal Safe Container Transportation Amendments Act of 1996 have been in force for 19 years and have their roots in a study made in 1990 that concluded that over one-third of all ocean containers entering the US weighed more than was legally allowed. The original act required every shipment with a gross cargo weight in excess of 10,000 lbs (4,536kg) to be accompanied by a notice from the shipper or consolidator as to the approximate gross weight (including outer packing) of the shipment, along with an accurate description of the cargo. The amending act increased the limit to 29,000lbs (13,154kg) and also allows a carrier to assume that no certification is required if one is not tendered at time of shipment receipt. The act also applies to export cargoes and requires the shipper to inform any trucker of the weight and contents. To comply with the new IMO requirements, shippers everywhere have two options. The first is to weigh the packed container and the second involves 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 mass 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 completed. Weighing the packed container is clearly the best option but is criticised by opponents as being time consuming and expensive. That there must be some delays is possibly true but the cost of using a public weighbridge is not particularly expensive and installing one at their own premises could be a possible investment for large shippers. Weighbridges are not a high value capital expense and the cost of installing one could be recouped by avoiding the penalties, legal and commercial, of having boxes shut out of ships for non compliance. The certified method mentioned in option two is not prescribed in the IMO rules and therefore whatever method the authorities referred to decide to permit will be acceptable. It is to be hoped that to comply with the spirit of the regulation, any approved method will require properly calibrated equipment to be used and not permit self-certification by shippers as this would negate the benefits that the rule is intended to bring about. For containers carried under NVOCC arrangements, the term shipper will apply to the NVOCC rather than the actual shipper. The IMO rule makes clear that it is the shipper who is responsible for providing the verified weight by stating it in the shipping document and submitting it to the master or his representative and to the terminal representative sufficiently in advance to be used in the preparation of the ship stowage plan. That requirement rules out one option that shippers’ bodies have suggested – allowing the weight to be measured during actual loading on the ship. Nor would it satisfy the requirements of IMO MSC.1/Circ.1475 6.3.1.1 which seeks to protect shore workers from hazards posed by overweight containers. The IMO ruling was adopted and publicised in late 2014 giving more than 18 months’ notice of its provisions. More than sufficient time one would think for shippers to make appropriate arrangements to meet the requirements. However, most shippers associations including the European Shippers’ Council, the Asian Shippers Council and US Agriculture Transportation Coalition have chosen instead to follow a policy of opposing the rules as they have been doing ever since the issue was first raised. Most of these associations have challenged the assertion that a problem even exists and have argued that there is not a single case where overweight containers have been proved to have contributed to the loss of any vessel. While it may be true that no single incident has been wholly attributable to overweight containers by an official investigation, there is more than enough evidence that shippers have long been abusing the existing rules and have a cavalier attitude to ship safety. The fact that the US Federal Highway Administration felt as long ago as 1990 – and probably before since there must have been a reason to initiate the study – that there was a problem with overweight boxes is an indication that the shippers’ bodies are being disingenuous. From the carriers’ side BIMCO has documented a number of incidents where containers have been found to be grossly overweight. These are all recent cases within the last decade but doubtless many observers will be able to extend the list to include earlier incidents as well. The earliest of the list occurred in January 2006 and involved the P & O Nedlloyd Genoa. Full details of the incident can be found in the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch, Report 20/2006. The ship encountered heavy weather on a voyage from Europe to the US port of Newark. Several stacks collapsed and many boxes were lost overboard. The report highlighted the fact that no mechanism existed for verifying declared container weights and stated “The cause of the collapse of the container stacks in bay 34 was probably due to a significant increase in downward compression and racking forces exerted on the bottom container in row 07 by the acceleration forces imposed on the deck cargo by the ship’s motion in heavy weather; the stow plan in row 07 incorporated heavy over lights; and, tiers 88 and 90 exceeded maximum permissible weights. The problem was made worse, in that the actual weight of the containers stowed in row 07, tiers 84 and 90, was 6 tonnes over their declared weight. There were also other references to the problem in the report. The next incident was in February 2007 when container stacks on the Limari collapsed. The master advised the authorities that: “Excessively heavy units had been loaded in the upper tiers and that the maximum stack weight had been exceeded considerably in some rows. The effect of the overweight units was to impose excessive forces on the lashings. The actual container weights were established by the devices on the gantry crane when lifting and shifting the collapsed containers. The actual container weights exceeded the declared weights by 362% (Row 08), 393% (Row 06), 407% (Row 04) and 209% (Row 02) in Bay 52 where the collapse occurred. Later that year, MSC Napoli foundered off the UK coast and eventually broke in two. Once again this incident was the subject of a MAIB investigation. During the salvage work an opportunity was taken to weigh and containers not subject to water ingress. About 660 containers stowed on deck were weighed. The weights of 137 (20%) of these containers were more than three tonnes different from their declared weights. The largest difference was 20 tonnes, and the total weight of the 137 containers was 312 tonnes heavier than on the cargo manifest. In another incident, around 10% of the containers on the Deneb which capsized during loading in Algeciras in 2011 were found to be overweight. The actual weights exceeded the declared weight in a range from between 1.9 times as much as the declared weight to as much as 6.7 times the declared weight. The total, actual weight of these 16 containers was more than 278 tonnes above their total, declared weight of about 93 tonnes. There are more cases but the three above provide more than sufficient evidence of the effects that the shippers’ bodies say have not been proven. Having left little time to establish procedures needed to meet the July deadline, shippers’ representatives are pushing for a delay which the ship operators and the IMO are resisting strongly. Shipping lines are sending out the message that containers presented without a verified gross mass certificate will be rejected. This may alienate shippers but as long as flag states enforce the ruling and port states play their part also, then a perennial problem may finally be solved.