10 August 2017

Over a Year On, How is the Weighing of Export Freight Containers Progressing?  

The Global VGM Standards Should be Universal - but are they?

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Shipping News Feature WORLDWIDE – Over a year ago we saw the introduction of compulsory declarations of gross weight for export containers, a ruling which is truly global having received full implementation under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) with the ratification of the extension of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations. In countries such as the UK different protocols were introduced at all of the country's ports to ensure that a Verified Gross Mass or VGM was either supplied by the exporter or could be calculated at the dock itself. So how does the accurate weighing of freight stand now globally?

When the regulations were proposed some countries, notably agricultural interests in the United States, threw up their hands in horror, protesting there would be huge extra costs, delays etc. In the meantime ports such as London Gateway on the River Thames simply produced a simple but comprehensive ‘user’s guide’ which explained not only the costs and details of the methods to be undertaken, but also the reason for needing the information.

The regulations were put in place because of the accidents which all too often occur when container weights are misdeclared. The stacking of one box on top of another is something which ships master’s particularly have to ensure is done in a rational way, the wrong information on the manifest can lead to a fatal imbalance or the collapse of a stack.

So, more than a year on, what is the global situation? Regrettably, the answer may be considered as passable, but certainly not great. Firstly this is a subject where the studies of performance undertaken are principally subjective. The authorities charged with implementation vary in efficiency to a tremendous degree and an excellent piece by Peregrine Storrs-Fox, the Risk Management Director of the TT Club in April confirmed the fears of many in the first world shipping community.

The TT Club study pointed out that often in many states the maritime administration which made the undertaking to the IMO to implement the amendment, is not the same government department charged at national level with enforcement. This means a myriad of different interpretations for what is actually a very simple set of rules. What is clear is doubtless that, when it comes to published statistics, nothing about the success of the VGM initiative should be taken at face value. As Peregrine Storrs-Fox points out, nominal compliance based on ‘facts’ emanating from freight industry vested interests, are viewed somewhat sardonically by many onlookers.

There is a weight of circumstantial evidence that points to some states simply either being too lax in their requirements whilst others simply employ personnel which cannot tell the difference between a properly calculated VGM and a gross weight which includes container tare weights, dunnage etc. The very nature of the obfuscation of facts, coupled with the lack of reporting per se means accurate data country by country is currently a pipe dream.

So, whilst generally the system can be seen to be working well it is an unfortunate truth that it may require a major incident to bring to light countries and individual ports which, although paying lip service to the requirements, are in fact falling short of what is required. The one factor which means we can take encouragement is the fact that many of the world’s container terminals are run by international companies who will comprehend the risk to their businesses if they are perceived to have contributed to a major accident in the future, and will thus ensure that the corporate standards will apply wherever in the world they are operating.

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