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Global Logistics

New Rules About Misdeclared Containers

By Dr. Murray King

Bison Group

30 Jul 3 Minutes


New rules about misdeclared containers

Dr Murray King, a transport consultant and former president of CILT NZ, has provided an article regarding the latest regulations on misdeclared containers.

The International Maritime Organisation, a United Nations organization based in London, oversees the safety of global shipping and is responsible for the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea ("SOLAS"). SOLAS regulates all aspects of shipping, including the construction of vessels, life-saving equipment, and the transport of hazardous goods. Chapter VI of SOLAS focuses specifically on the transportation of cargo, and 162 countries (including New Zealand) have signed this convention, representing 99% of the world's shipping tonnage. In New Zealand, the SOLAS regulations are incorporated into local laws through the Maritime Transport Act 1994 and Maritime New Zealand's Maritime Rules. This information was originally published in Logistics and Transport NZ, the official publication of CILT NZ.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has recently agreed to amend the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention to strengthen the regulations related to container weight declarations. The current convention already requires shippers to declare the weight of containers, enabling masters to make accurate trimming decisions for their vessels. However, the current regulations are not enforced effectively, if at all. Container weights are often inaccurately estimated or declared. Both under-declared and over-declared weights pose safety risks. If a container is declared to weigh less than its actual weight, it may be placed high in the ship's deck stack, creating potential instability. Conversely, if a container is declared to weigh more than its actual weight, it may be placed lower in the deck stack with heavier containers above it, which may also disrupt the vessel's stability. Although containers have load limits marked on them, overloading a container is not the only issue. The difference between the actual and declared weight is the primary concern. Poor weight distribution within a container can also cause significant problems.

Scope of the problem

The problem of inaccurate weight distribution within containers is a significant issue. It is estimated that around one-third of the 130 million containers shipped annually have misdeclared weights. Deck stacks are secured for stability, and lashings may break due to unplanned weight distribution on the stack. If cargo distribution is not in line with the declarations provided to the master, the ship itself can become unstable, potentially leading to its breakup.

In recent years, several incidents have occurred due to overweight containers, such as the breaking up of the MOL Comfort off Yemen and the hull buckling of the MSC Napoli, which was beached on England's south coast. In the latter case, 660 containers that had remained dry were weighed, and 20% were found to differ from the declared weight by over 3 tonnes. One container was 20 tonnes different. Additionally, the Maersk Svendborg lost more than 500 containers overboard in a Bay of Biscay storm, and other ships have rolled at their berths, while cranes and forklifts have failed under the loads.

Each year, around 350 containers are lost overboard, creating navigation and environmental hazards. These misdeclarations result in higher freight rates and insurance premiums, which are ultimately borne by exporters and consumers, even if they do not personally lose freight.

The problem of inaccurate weight distribution also affects other modes of transportation. In rail transport, an overloaded container can cause significant damage to tracks and bridges, to the point where the route of the detected container may need to be checked for damage before allowing any trains to run. KiwiRail has installed weigh-in-motion weighbridges to detect overweight wagons, including containerized traffic. Similarly, in road transport, an estimated 8-10% of trucks were overloaded (before the change to RUC rules), including some container trucks, causing damage to bridges, roads, and increasing the risk of truck rollovers.

The Solas Amendments

To tackle the problem of container weight misdeclaration, the SOLAS amendments will require containers to be weighed before being loaded onto a ship starting in 2016. The shipper will be responsible for weighing the container and providing a weight certificate. However, some freight forwarders have objected to this requirement, citing their role as aggregators of cargo, and so the IMO has agreed to a compromise position. In addition to the tare weight of the container, the weight of all contents, including packing and dunnage, can be added to determine the container's weight.

Despite these new rules, the accuracy of container weights will still depend on the honesty and accuracy of the shipper. There is currently no mechanism in place to verify the accuracy of the weight certificates. The responsibility for ensuring compliance will fall on the "port state", which is the country where the container is loaded. As such, New Zealand will be responsible for ensuring compliance for all its exports.

What could be done?

To ensure successful implementation of the new regulations, measures need to be taken to increase awareness and education on the importance of accurate container weight declarations. Additionally, a system for verification and enforcement of the weight requirements may need to be developed to deter non-compliance.

One potential solution to the issue of overloaded containers is to make ships stronger, but this comes with added weight and cost, and may not be a feasible measure. Additionally, international container ships are not built, owned, or registered in New Zealand, making this approach irrelevant in this context.

Another proposal was to make masters responsible for weighing containers, but they typically do not have the means to measure weight as most modern container ships do not have their own lifting gear. Instead, ports are in a prime position to weigh containers, as all sea-borne containers by definition pass through them. Technology such as a straddle carrier can be utilized for this purpose.

However, during the development of the SOLAS amendments, objections were raised to making ports responsible for weighing containers as it would involve international regulation of ports, which is not currently done. Despite this, weight breaches can occur on land where local rules apply, so internal regulation of ports could be feasible. In fact, the Maritime Transport Act in New Zealand has been extended to cover ports.

On the other hand, weighing containers at ports could potentially delay the container and create liabilities for the port owner. Additionally, a port is a late stage in the supply chain, and an overweight container may have already caused problems before it even reaches the port.

In the United States, it is a legal requirement for ports to weigh containers as part of workplace health and safety regulations. This mandatory weighing has not caused any issues in the US. However, a survey by the International Association of Ports and Harbors revealed that only 30% of ports outside the US regularly weigh containers. Napier Port is among the few ports in New Zealand that weigh containers, but it does not appear to be a common practice elsewhere in the country.

Inland carriers, who may have better access to weighing devices than shippers, could also be made responsible for weighing containers. However, since carriers are not the ones who overload the container, it would be unfair to place sole responsibility on them.

An integrated approach

Ports and carriers could be required to check-weigh the container (if they have the means), with the primary responsibility remaining on the shipper. Shippers are at the start of the supply chain, and requiring them to weigh the container would ensure all movements of the container are accounted for. This is already done in the US. In Australia, all containers transported by road must be weighed and the weight verified through a "container weight declaration." There are substantial fines for non-compliance or providing false information. All road-bound containers heading into Australian ports must be weighed before arriving at the port, along with those transferred from road to rail for transportation to the port.

The Australian rules are designed to target overweight containers, so there may be some over-declaration to err on the safe side. This would need to be controlled for maritime use as well. However, the weight declaration could be an effective way to ensure New Zealand shippers accurately and honestly weigh their containers.