Weights and measures
Shippers are a diverse group, and they can’t be expected to agree on everything.
Still, we are surprised by the reception a proposal by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to require verification of container weights received from some shipper groups.
In late September, the IMO Subcommittee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers (DSC) agreed to draft amendments to require mandatory verification of gross weight of containers under chapter VI of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention.
The IMO Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) is expected to approve the SOLAS draft amendments in May 2014 and the final adoption should follow in November 2014, with implementation as early as July 2016.
The IMO plan sounds sensible to us.
Containers leaving U.S. ports are weighed; trucks traveling on the roads here and in many countries must be weighed and bridge and road limits obeyed.
But, of course, containers are not truck trailers. The motion of the sea results in ships, their containers, and the cargo within them being subject to much greater forces than when they’re sitting at a loading dock, or traveling down a highway, or on railroad track.
On the sea, ships roll, pitch, heave, yaw, sway and surge. They bend and twist. Containers are subject to racking forces. Even in normal ocean conditions the forces are considerable. During a storm, lashing systems can be severely tested. Containerships may be subject to parametric roll in certain conditions – violent, unstable rolling in head or stern quartering seas.
Lack of knowledge of the weight of a container or deliberate misrepresentation can lead to disastrous consequences for those who must handle this equipment or be around it during transport.
The container carrying the cargo of another shipper could be damaged by an adjacent overweight container. If containers break lose, they can be a hazard to both the environment and other vessels.
The normal wear-and-tear on transportation equipment and infrastructure can be aggravated if containers are overloaded and lead to premature failure.
Shippers have been tremendous beneficiaries of the container revolution which allows for rapid stowage and offloading of cargo. Before the container was invented, carriers had a much clearer view of what was in the hold of their ships and how it was stowed.
As we see it, part of the bargain of containerization is that proper stowage — and that includes knowing the weight of your cargo — has been transferred from the shipowner and stevedores it hires to the shipper and its warehousemen or agents — the consolidator that a less-than-containerload shipper employs, for example.
Truck scales are not as plentiful in some parts of the world as they are in the United States, but their price tag is in the tens of thousands of dollars, a fraction of a container crane and less than many other pieces of equipment found in every container terminal.
The proposed SOLAS amendment was supported by the World Shipping Council and the Global Shippers Forum (which includes the largest U.S. shipper organization, the National Industrial Transportation League) who worked to make it more shipper-friendly.
But it has been called “ineffective” by the European Shippers’ Council and the European and international freight forwarders associations CLECAT and FIATA. The Asian Shippers’ Council has said the measure is “doomed to fail” and even compared it to the proposal for 100 percent screening of containers in the United States.
The ESC and ASC are important speakers for shipper interests, but we think they are wrong on this issue. Truck scales are a modestly priced piece of technology, and we are sure there will be terminals, governments and entrepreneurs that will install such equipment either at container terminals or inland locations and offer weighing services.
There is even a provision in the IMO regulation that allows shippers to weigh the individual items going into containers, dunnage material, and add it to the tare (empty) weight of the containers for a total weight calculation.
Opponents of the IMO proposal say the evidence isn’t there that overweight containers are responsible for some of the major ship casualties they have been blamed for, and perhaps that’s true. And they say some carriers rely on estimated weights when cargo is booked and don’t adjust stowage plans when updated weights are provided as containers enter terminals. If so, carriers need to do a better job at adjusting their information in real time.
Still, if having accurate weights can prevent even a small number of accidents, we think it is worth it for improved safety — on the sea, at terminals, and on the railroads and roads.