Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Insurers Remain the Experts on Shipping Container Stowage

Hidden Dangers Lurk in the Corners of Waterborne Boxes
Shipping News Feature

UK – WORLDWIDE – If you want to know about shipping containers, ask an insurer. That is the message which comes when one follows up a recent release from the TT Club which covers one of those rarely considered questions, crucial to safety in what can be an inherently dangerous industry, yet generally overlooked until it becomes a problem. Whilst ISO standards for containers are rigidly adhered to and any signs of damage obvious and prompting immediate repair or replacement there is one small component which tucks away, literally in the corner, yet upon which lives can depend. We are speaking of the humble twistlock.

When containers are transported to and from the quayside they travel aboard trucks or rail cars with designed in locks which clamp the load securely. Regularly serviced, any fault is rapidly spotted and dealt with, yet, when the boxes need to be secured aboard ship several tiers high, the stevedores are dependent upon the supply of two way twistlocks and lashing bars carried aboard the vessel itself, and, like any gear aboard ship, the twistlocks here are subject to abuse in the extreme. The following is an extract from TT Talk which summarises the situation perfectly.

The TT Club points out that these days the operation for fitting twistlocks has moved from the container top to the quayside, necessitating the transfer of the requisite gear from the ship to the quay before discharging or loading can commence. A platform based container has been developed, facilitating the movement of large numbers of twistlocks using the standard ship to shore cranes. These gear carriers consist of a half-height platform with fixed corner posts, fitted with a number of removable bins. The bins can be lifted from the flatrack using a fork truck and will have a safe working load of about 2 tonnes (meaning that each bin can accommodate approximately 330 twistlocks). The bins are generally constructed of painted sheet steel, designed to be stacked, but not when loaded onto the gear carrier, and have no lids.

Operationally, gear carriers may be stowed in the top stack slot where they are continuously open to the weather and spray. Typically, stevedores will pick twistlocks from the top of the bin when fitting them to containers and return them to the top of the pile after removal. This last in/first out approach means that that twistlocks at the bottom of the bin may not be taken out for a considerable time and there will be a build-up of debris [not to say salt water] in the bottom of the bin. Since the bins are open and usually at the top of the stack, they and their contents remain wet most of the time.

Furthermore, the twistlock will often be thrown into the bin causing the surface finish to be damaged and permitting corrosion to build up. The consequence of this accumulation of debris, rust and corrosion is that gear carriers and bins may become unsafe. So who owns these vital pieces of gear and who is responsible for their condition? According to the ‘Box Bible’, the International Convention for Safe Containers (CSC), the owner, that is to say the person currently responsible for the box and who bears responsibility for it being in a safe condition.

In practice this all becomes very foggy and the name emblazoned on the side of the box may in fact be a red herring. The situation then for identifying ownership of securing gear is therefore even far more complex. According to the TT Club, things are now moving to prevent these vital items from continuing to be an unseen threat in the future but, whilst the latest edition of the supplement to the CSC includes a new paragraph specifically dealing with ship’s gear carriers and bins, it is hard to envisage when and where a ‘competent person’ is going to be able to carry out a scheduled periodic examination of the container and bins, let alone the gear stowed inside.

The proposal is that details of each examination are marked on the relevant safety approval plate, something which can only be done in port whilst on the quayside. The TT Club sensibly suggests that a revolving stock of both bins and the gear they carry be retained at all hub ports which will prevent the situation arising where a vessel’s stock of parts, having not been inspected for a considerable time, is subsequently condemned by the examiner, effectively stranding the ship in port until replacements are available.

These problems of correctly securing containers whilst aboard persist despite a generation of accidents, many entirely preventable. In 2000 the UK P&I Club issued a bulletin which clearly showed the most common problems associated with on board container accidents, focusing on the wrong types of twistlocks and incorrect use of container lashings and the use of damaged gear. The emphasis has to be with the stevedore’s employer to ensure adequate training is given to ensure correct use and immediate reporting and disposal of damaged gear.

For anyone wanting a ground level introduction to container types one could do worse than consult the material available from the German Marine insurers whilst, although specifically aimed at ships Masters, the information contained in the Lloyds Register Guide to Container Securing contains information useful to anyone working in or around waterborne box traffic.

Photo: When being offloaded two containers lashed in opposite directions aboard ship can make a stevedore believe all fixings have been removed causing the stack to topple when lifted.