FINALLY, after years of debate and politicking, common sense has ruled and in a landmark agreement the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has determined the mandatory container weighing is to be introduced globally.
The IMO’s Maritime Safety has approved changes to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention that will require verification of container weights as a condition for loading packed export containers on board ships.
Under the new rules, shippers can either weigh the loaded container or weigh all packages and cargo items (including dunnage) and then add the weight of the empty box.
The approved changes to the convention will now go for final adoption in November, which appears a formality, and will come into force in July 2016.
This is an issue that has been followed by this column diligently since I analysed the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch’s probe into the MSC Napoli grounding in the English Channel in 2007.
One of the most alarming findings was that a fifth of the containers on the vessel was more than three tonnes overweight. Inspectors examined 660 containers remaining on the deck of the ship after it beached, and 137 were above their declared weights. The worst was a huge 20 tonnes over.
In the seven years following that accident, initial efforts were made to secure a buy-in to voluntary safety guidelines. The World Shipping Council and International Chamber of Shipping began lobbying for container weighing in 2008 but failed to gain much traction.However, the partial capsizing of the 500-TEU feeder ship Deneb, in the Spanish port of Algeciras, in June 2011, added greater emphasis to the debate and the focus then shifted to the IMO using its muscle to force change.
Since then there has been opposition to the concept. Most flag state opposition dissipated quickly but, as recently as late last year, there was discord among some shippers and unions. On the union side the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) felt the rule didn’t go far enough. It wanted all loaded boxes to be physically weighed, nothing less, and no ‘calculating’ the weight.
Its case is based on the risk that unweighted and misdeclared containers pose to wharfies, seafarers, truck drivers and the general public — and one can understand that standpoint.
Some shipper groups, by contrast, have consistently seen problems with the concept. The European Shippers Council contended that container weighing requirements would be “ineffective”.
The Asian Shippers Council doubted whether it would work across all Asian countries, as some developing countries would not have the mature infrastructure to allow consistent and accurate weighing. Forcing them to gear up for this would add cost and delays to the supply chain, they argued.
The other fear was that time spent on verification at terminals would delay the speedy movement of boxes into the stack. By contrast, the Global Shippers Forum (GSF) engaged with the IMO throughout, and last week welcomed the new agreement. Chris Welsh, secretary-general of the GSF, will even chair a working group in the UK to consider how the new rules should be applied in Britain, finalising the best methods for verifying weight.
This may set the standard for other countries which will have to agree on their own new safety standards. The IMO is assisting this by issuing a circular to member governments, inclusive of implementation guidelines, along with a new Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units.
There is already a benchmark to aspire to. The US has for some time required container weighing on all export shipments. In New Zealand one port — Napier — is already prepared, as reported recently in the Shipping Gazette™ news pages. Eight years ago it implemented a system of weighing each export box by forklift upon receival into the container terminal and taking action as appropriate.
The port admits that the new requirements increase a terminal’s workload and obligations by having to make sure that each container weight is accurate, but Napier’s strong preference is to have the containers physically in its possession in order to verify the weight. This allows efficient planning for the loading of vessels.
There may be a need for ports generally to bring forward their acceptance times for container delivery to the terminal, and they will begin to review their processes as they prepare for the new system.
Internationally, the general mood is one of acclaim for the decision. One pertinent point I saw raised in a web debate on the subject was that the perfect solution would be to weigh the containers at the shipper’s’ premises, prior to leaving for the port.
This would avert the situation whereby the weight-limit law would already have been broken on the road or rail journey to the port.
“Moreover,” said the commentator to this web debate, “if the blame for incorrectly-declared weights is with the shippers, can we trust them as it pertains to the accuracy of the scales in their yards?“
The reality, therefore, is that we are back to the process whereby containers are weighed as they enter the terminal gate — except the rule for failure will be tough. When the actual weight of the container does not match the shipper’s declaration, it will be stopped and held pending re-stuffing to the proper weight, at the cost of the offending party.
Comments I have received from some sources agree with the new rules. The general feeling was that they are eminently sensible and will impact significantly only on those shippers who cross the line with overweight boxes.
One comment was: “Those that say it is bad presumably will have no trouble flying commercially on an airline that accepts the weight of a passenger’s baggage as per the passenger’s best guesstimate? There are real consequences at sea, on road and in the air for getting these weights wrong.” I couldn’t agree more.