The International Maritime Organization (IMO) passed the requirement to provide container weights as part of its Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention back in November 2014. Container-shipping companies and terminal operators claim that over the years there have been accidents and other problems involving containers with misdeclared container weights. If this is true, then we owe shipping companies and their crews, terminal operators and longshoremen, and others in the supply chain the right to a safe workplace. To do that, containers should be packed properly and not exceed their maximum weight. And carriers need to know those container weights so that cargo on their ships is properly stowed.
Stowage plans are like multi-dimensional Sudoko games: weights in each container stack above and below deck may not be exceeded and cargo must be evenly distributed around the ship so it can maintain stability and not create undue stresses. There are also restrictions on where hazardous or refrigerated cargo can be stowed. In addition, containers must be positioned so they can be discharged and loaded in the least amount of time—an important aspect with the growing size of containerships. And all this has to be done while thinking several moves ahead, or in other words, what makes sense when the ship arrives at the next several ports in its rotation.
The IMO says shippers can weigh loaded containers, or sum up the tare weight of a container and its contents, including pallets, dunnage, etc. Many shippers do this already. But can a truck with a container on a chassis run over a scale and subtract the weight of the chassis, tractor, driver and fuel to gain the actual container weight?
In a recent attempt for clarification, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Thomas said his agency is responsible for ensuring that U.S.-flag ships comply with SOLAS when engaged in international voyages and verifying foreign-flag ships comply with SOLAS when operating in U.S. waters, but added his agency has no authority over the operations of domestic shippers.
The admiral affirmed this is a business-to-business requirement and the Coast Guard believes “carriers currently comply with SOLAS, and are therefore not requiring domestic shippers to make changes in existing practices.”
No matter how it ultimately plays out, shippers and NVOs must figure out how to include container weight verification in their day-to-day shipping processes or risk not having their cargo loaded. And they will have to satisfy their own concerns about possible liability if they don’t provide accurate VGM information.
The good thing is there are plenty of trade associations, information technology companies and marine terminals that are staying on top of this global issue and making plans to have container-weighing procedures, tools and services made available to shippers and NVOs.
While moving toward the July 1 deadline, let’s not underestimate our industry’s incredible ability to solve problems. That’s what shippers and NVOs do each and every day for their customers. Why should container weight verification be any different?