Article kindly supplied by Dr Murray King, transport consultant and past president of CILT NZ. First published in Logistics and Transport NZ, the official publication of CILT NZ.

The International Maritime Organisation, a London-based UN body, regulates the safety of international shipping. It is responsible for the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (“SOLAS”), which regulates all aspects of shipping, passenger and freight, from building the ship to life saving equipment to dangerous goods. Chapter VI specifically deals with carriage of cargo. 162 countries have signed up to this convention (including New Zealand), representing 99% of the world’s shipping tonnage. In New Zealand, the SOLAS rules are incorporated into local rules through the Maritime Transport Act 1994, and Maritime New Zealand’s (“MNZ”) Maritime Rules.

Recently the IMO has agreed to amend SOLAS to tighten up the rules about declaring container weight. Already the convention requires shippers to declare the weight of containers, so masters can make proper trimming decisions for their ships. But the rules do not appear to be particularly well enforced, if at all. Container weights continue to be poorly estimated, or wrongly declared. Both under- and over-declared weights are safety risks. If a box is declared at less than its actual weight, it may be put high in the ship’s deck stack, creating potential instability. If it is declared at more than its actual weight, it may be put lower in the deck stack with heavier containers above it, and again disrupt the stability.

Containers do have load limits, marked on them. But a container need not be loaded beyond its limit to be a problem. It is the difference between actual and stated weight that is the issue. Poor weight distribution in a container also creates serious problems.

Scope of the problem

Misdeclaration is not a trivial problem. About a third of the 130 million containers shipped each year are estimated to have inaccurate weights. Deck stacks are lashed for stability, and lashings may break with unplanned weight distribution on the stack. The ship itself can become unstable or even break up if the cargo distribution is not as the declarations led the master to believe.

Last year, the MOL Comfort broke up off Yemen, and while all the evidence sank with the ship, there is a strong possibility that overweight containers caused the incident. In 2007, the MSC Napoli’s hull buckled and it was beached on England’s south coast.

Here the evidence was not lost: 660 containers that had remained dry were weighed. 20% differed from the declared weight by over 3 tonnes. One container was 20 tonnes different. Earlier this year the Maersk Svendborg lost more than 500 containers overboard in a Bay of Biscay storm. Other ships have rolled at their berths, and cranes and forklifts have failed under the loads.

Each year 350 containers are lost overboard other than through catastrophic events like those mentioned above. These containers themselves do not all sink, and create navigation hazards, and sometimes environmental ones. We all pay for these misdeclarations as exporters or consumers through higher freight rates or insurance premiums, even if we do not personally lose freight.

The problem affects other modes too, though for them the issue is mainly underdeclaration, that is, overstating the load is not a problem. On rail an overloaded container can seriously damage track and bridges, so much so that in some circumstances the route of the detected container has to be checked for damage, with no trains allowed to run until that check is clear. KiwiRail has installed weigh-in- motion weighbridges which detect overweight wagons, including some containerised traffic.
On road, it has been estimated that 8-10% of trucks were overloaded (before the change to RUC rules), including some container trucks. Overloaded trucks damage bridges, roads, and may cause the truck to roll over, creating a further hazard.

The SOLAS amendments

In order to try to stamp out this problem, the SOLAS amendments will, from 2016, make it mandatory for the container to be weighed before it is loaded on to a ship. The shipper will be responsible for weighing the container and certifying the weight. But in the light of several objections from shippers like freight forwarders who simply aggregate cargo and put it into a container, the IMO has agreed a compromise position, that adding the weight of all the contents, including packing and dunnaging, and including the tare weight of the box, will be acceptable as an alternative method.

But like the current rules, these rely on the honesty and accuracy of the shipper. There is no check built into the rules to make sure the weights are accurate. Under SOLAS, the “port state” will be responsible for making sure there is compliance. In this case, the port state is the country where the container is loaded. Thus, NZ will be responsible for compliance for all its exports. What then can we do to make it work?

What could be done?

Ships could be made stronger, and indeed the MOL Comfort’s sister ships were strengthened after it loss. But that adds weight and cost, and may not be an appropriate measure. In any case, international container ships are not built, owned, or “flagged” (registered) here, so it is not relevant here.

It was suggested during the development of the rules that masters could be made responsible for weight, but they do not have any way of measuring it. Most modern container ships do not have their own lifting gear. Masters have to rely on others.

Ports are in a prime position to weigh containers, as all sea-borne containers by definition pass through them. Technology is available for a straddle carrier to weigh a container. Making ports responsible was objected to in the IMO process on the basis that it would involve international regulation of ports, at least the thin edge of it, something not currently done. But of course weight breaches take place on land, where local rules apply, so there is nothing to stop internal regulation of ports. Indeed, NZ’s Maritime Transport Act has now been extended to cover ports. On the other hand, weighing might delay the container, and create liabilities for the port owner. A port is also rather late in the supply chain, and an overweight container might already have wreaked havoc before it got there.

In the US, it is already a legal requirement for ports to weigh containers, as part of workplace health and safety regulation. Making weighing compulsory has not caused any problems there. But a survey by the International Association of Ports and Harbours found that outside of the US, only 30% of ports regularly weighed containers. Containers are weighed by Napier Port, as a health and safety practice, but it does not appear to be common elsewhere in this country.

Inland carriers, who could be expected to have better access to weighing devices that shippers, could also be made responsible. But they are not the party that actually overloads the container, so making them solely responsible seems unfair.

Both ports and carriers could however be required to check-weigh the container (if they have the means), with the primary responsibility remaining on the shipper. The shipper is at the start of the supply chain, and making it weigh the container catches all movements of the container. This is already done in the US. In Australia, all containers moved by road must be weighed and the weight verified, through a “container weight declaration”. There are large fines for misleading or non-compliance. All road borne containers into ports in Australia must thus have been weighed before they reach the port (along with those transferred from road to rail for the journey to the port).

The Australian rules are aimed at overweight containers, so there might be some over declaration to be on the safe side, which would have to also be controlled for maritime use. But the weight declaration could be a workable way to make sure New Zealand shippers accurately and honestly weigh their containers.

An integrated approach

The problem affects all transport modes along the route of the container. Putting responsibility at just one point in the supply chain without oversight risks errors and potentially fraudulent behaviour. What is needed is a “chain of responsibility” approach, fully developed as it is in Australia for heavy vehicles. While the main responsibility should be with the shipper, every opportunity should be taken to check that weight by later parties in the chain, and it should be mandatory for ports to check weigh. Nevertheless, the responsibility for any issues found should rest with the shipper. Misdeclarations should be reported, monitored and enforced as incidents, on road, rail, and at ports.

Ultimately such a system could be automated, with RFID tags attached to the containers. This is already done for six million livestock movements in New Zealand, so it should not be difficult for two million containers.

To make this work requires a multi-agency approach. Most of the controls would be in the Land Transport Act, and so the NZTA would need to be fully involved as well as Maritime NZ.

Putting the onus on shippers, checking weights, and reporting incidents will identify persistent offenders. Ultimately this system should rid New Zealand of the problem.

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