Safety at Sea

Container fires and weights


Adam Foster
Adam Foster

14 March 2019

Container fires and weights

Containerisation has been responsible for a revolution in cargo handling and rapid port turnrounds but the use of containers also has safety implications. Often this is due to shippers deliberately declaring hazardous cargoes as something harmless to avoid paying premium freight rates. In such cases this may mean containers are stowed in inappropriate slots on board. There appears to be an increasing number of cases of hazardous cargoes catching fire or exploding and resulting in the loss of ships and lives.

There is an onus on shore staff when booking cargoes to be more vigilant and there is a requirement under IMDG for staff responsible for accepting hazardous cargoes to have undergone training to understand the requirements with regard to packing and separation of such cargoes. Well trained staff can often identify some cargoes as being hazardous even when the shipper is not aware of the particular hazard involved. For example, swimming pool cleaners can contain some highly-flammable components and the booking staff must be able to recognise proprietary names for some of the more hazardous types. However, dealing with the issue of deliberate concealment is difficult because inspecting cargoes inside containers is not easy to achieve.

Following a number of container fires on its ships, notably the Maersk Honam in March 2018, Maersk line is considering ways to identify combinations of cargoes, shippers and freight forwarders likely to be connected to containers in areas where fires have started on board ships. If this can be achieved, then spot checks on containers will be made in future in an attempt to determine if cargoes are being deliberately mis-declared.

The spate of containership fires has continued in 2019. With just two months of the year having passed, Hapag Lloyd’s Yantian Express and APL’s APL Vancouver both suffered major fires and needed to be salvaged. In both cases, the seat of the fire was in the cargo holds although exact causes have still to be determined.

In recent years the IMO has laid down new rules for fire extinguishing systems on container ships but there is a widely-held belief that the size of modern container vessels – especially the ultra large ships – makes an effective fire-fighting system impossible to produce.

Another issue with containers is the mis-declaration of weights which has resulted in stowage and stability problems. It is a matter that ship operators have complained about for many years and the IMO has finally taken action and adopted amendments to SOLAS Chapter VI Regulation 2. These have been published as MSC.1/Circ. 1475.

Since 1st July 2016, all packed containers are required to have a verified gross weight (VGW) declared by shippers. This the certified gross cargo weight (including weight of all packing material) plus container tare weight. The measure has not proved popular with shippers, but under the rules containers cannot be loaded onto a vessel unless a certified VGW is provided.