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When the MSC Napoli ran aground off the UK’s south coast in January 2007, 137 out of the 600 containers it was carrying on deck were at least 10% heavier or lighter than declared on the ship’s manifest.

Deadline looms for declaration of box weights

In another high-profile accident, the capsizing of the Xpress Container Line vessel Deneb during unloading at the Spanish port of  Algeciras in June 2011, an even higher percentage of boxes – 64 out of 150 – were not laden as recorded.

Speaking at last week’s Multimodal show in Birmingham, Richard Marks, director of the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA), reminded delegates of these startling statistics.

“The tendency is to assume that the weight on the booking form is the actual weight – this must account for a large proportion of misdeclarations,” he said, adding that on occasions there is human error as well.  The degree of “variation”, as he described it – error ratios of 22% in the case of the Napoli and 42% for the Deneb – were no surprise.

The question is what industry is doing about it?  The issue is becoming more urgent, the seminar heard, because shippers could be required by law within three years to verify weight before containers are loaded on board ship.

For some time this has raised the issue as to where such weight verification should be carried out – when the container is packed, at the port gate, at the stack, or at the point of loading onto the ship.

Parties to the Safety of Life at Sea convention agreed an amendment in September 2012 stipulating that a container should either be weighed in its entirety, or its contents weighed separately and added to the tare weight of the box.

Marks said the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) would consider the amendment this September and would probably adopt it in December 2014, leading to an entry into force in July 2016.

The verified weight would need to be stated in the shipping document, though the fact that this was prepared before the vessel was loaded may raise practical difficulties.  Marks said that weighing containers at the gatehouse on entry to the port was difficult and expensive, and could have an impact, especially on just-in-time deliveries.

Although various systems are available, he suggested that verifying weight on the lifting equipment itself was not guaranteed to be accurate, pointing out that self-geared ships often served terminals without dedicated equipment.

Giving the freight forwarder’s perspective, Robert Windsor, manager of trade services at the British International Freight Association (BIFA), said everyone in the supply chain had obligations and responsibilities, but if one person got it wrong, there were likely consequences for all the rest.

Stressing that bottlenecks must be avoided, he said, “Forwarders load many containers but operate differently according to whether they were acting as agent, consolidator, intermediary or loader”.  He believed most BIFA members would prefer aggregating cargo weights rather than weighing laden boxes, a point he was pleased to see had seemingly been acceptable to the IMO.

Echoing Marks’s comments, Windsor said that verification at the port would create a pinch-point.  However, targeted spot checks would be necessary as inaccurate container weights were part of a much wider problem involving Customs and other authorities.

Chris Welsh, director of global and European policy at the UK Freight Transport Association (FTA) said, “A small part of the market is not doing things correctly, not through malice, but ignorance of what is required”.

An FTA survey had suggested it was not weight, but inappropriately stowed and secured boxes that caused most problems.

Consultant Bill Brassington, who advises the International Labour Organisation on workplace safety, commented that shipping lines must review their booking procedures to make sure that containers declared as heavy were correctly placed. “The person who places the cargo in the unit must be responsible for declaring mass of that cargo,” he said.

The issue was not just one of accidents at sea, Brassington said. Stacks of containers could be unstable, or they could fall from spreaders. The safety of truck drivers, train operators and terminal operators was at stake as well as that of seafarers.