Casualty experts identify shortcomings that lead to container losses

Action is needed to reduce the risk of containers being lost overboard, according to experts from insurers and a leading ship inspection company. Speaking in a webinar on 30 July, they urged more effective pre-loading checks, more accurate lashing calculations and revised ship design criteria to reflect the growth in container ship capacity in recent years. They also noted that actions recommended a decade ago have still not been implemented.

The webinar was hosted by the UK P&I Club and transport and logistics insurer TT Club and took place three weeks after the World Shipping Council (WSC) published its latest three-yearly update of its Containers Lost at Sea study, which was first published in 2011.

Based on figures from its members, who represent 80% of global container capacity, the WSC had reported that a three-year average showed an improvement that continued a trend set in its 2017 report, although it noted that both 2018 and 2019 saw incidents in which more than 100 containers were lost. “We continue to work with governments and other interested stakeholders to identify losses, their causes and actionable solutions to reduce the losses in the future,” the report states.

As ShipInsight reported last week (7 August) the webinar’s panellists were invited to suggest their most pressing improvement that would reduce casualties and Neil Gardiner, managing master mariner at the inspection company Brookes Bell, said that a more thorough approach was needed to checks made by a ship’s chief mate when presented with a proposed loading plan. Those checks include confirming that the dangerous goods (DG) segregation is in line with the IMDG code, reviewing the cargo’s weight distribution and the resulting lashing forces but “one thing we find is that either the checks aren’t done or, if they are done, they’re not acted upon,” he said.

Even if they are done, he believes there are basic flaws in how lashing forces are calculated. This uses formulae set by class that he said assume the ship is a rigid structure. But ships flex and bend, he pointed out, which gives rise to a whipping action that creates a high additional ship motion at its extremities, especially in head and following seas. “This isn’t allowed for in standard lashing calculations,” he said.

He referred to a report produced in 2010 by the Maritime Research Institute Netherlands (MARIN), called Lashing@Sea, that showed this whipping action can increase dynamic loading on a container stow by up to 40-50%; “we’ve got to address this situation,” Mr Gardiner said.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox, risk management director at TT Club, also referred to that report, which had been submitted to IMO but it was only partially followed through “so I think there’s outstanding action there,” he said. But because the report was prepared so long ago, its findings are based on vessels “probably less than half the size of the [largest] ships that are currently in service” so he believes it is time for a follow-up study that would “pick out the issues that haven’t been followed through” and explore “all the other factors that we’ve identified … to bring about greater safety and certainty in shipping.”

Senior claims director at the UK P&I Club, Tom Starr, also reflected on the evolution of larger container ships, saying that although they are being built with modern techniques and designs, the criteria underlying their design are based on smaller ships that are two or three generations behind modern designs in some respects.

Mr Storrs-Fox had opened the webinar with an overview of some of the factors that can lead to container losses but said that “causation is often difficult to establish precisely, and is almost always an aggregation of issues,” a situation that had prompted the webinar’s subtitle, ‘The sum of the parts’. Those parts all relate to a small number of issues, mainly loading, lashing and onboard management.

Incorrect stack loads, for example, are frequently implicated in casualties, which could be caused by a loading error or a miss-declaration of a container’s gross mass, something that Mr Gardiner said was “gambling with other peoples’ lives.”

Mr Storrs-Fox also spoke of regulatory shortcomings, saying that loading software that is used both onshore and at sea “is increasingly sophisticated and … may have outgrown the confines of the regulatory framework,” which includes SOLAS, the Code of Safe Practice for Cargo Stowage and Securing (CSS Code) and its related Cargo Securing Manual.

He is also concerned about maintenance of onboard equipment, including lashing bars, pad-eyes and twistlocks, in particular automatic twistlocks. Mr Gardiner echoed his comments, saying that fully- and semi-automatic twistlocks tend to have higher vertical clearances than non-automatic versions, which he said allows containers to wobble slightly. “When you’re loading containers [up to] nine tiers high, this can be quite a significant amount of movement.” Although the lashing bars should reduce the effect, there will be some movement, which will increase dynamic loading on containers and their lashing system, he said.

So he urged crew to check their ship’s lashings during a voyage. It is a simple, though time-consuming, job, but it can solve a lot of problems, he said.

Ship masters should also make a range of checks of the ship and its cargo securing equipment before and during a voyage, Mr Storrs-Fox said, starting with checking that the ship has adequate stability and that it will continue to do so throughout the voyage. He also referred to a 2007 IMO circular, MSC.1/Circ.1228, Revised guidance to the master for avoiding dangerous situations in adverse weather and sea conditions, which shows how to determine the period of wave encounter and suggests ways to avoid synchronous and parametric rolling and other dangerous occurrences.

“Clearly the master is responsible to make these dynamic decisions, such as reducing speed or altering course and some of these will be based on his or her own experience.” But some will be based on software prompts and “the question has to be raised [as to whether] those software prompts are sufficiently supportive for the decisions that have to be taken,” he said.

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