Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shipping Container Weights - A Freight Fraud That Can Cost Lives

Incorrect Declarations Can Lead to Accidents
Shipping News Feature

UK – WORLDWIDE – Once upon a time it was cube cutting that was the fraud of choice for the world’s freight forwarders but with the burgeoning trade in full load containers (FCL’s) over the past few decades, often stuffed with consolidated cargo from different consignors, a new and potentially much more dangerous, problem has arisen.

Under declared tonnage in shipping containers, deliberate or not, has the potential to put lives at risk. Gantries, fork lift trucks and other handling equipment may not be up to the strain and, in worst case scenarios, ships can be incorrectly loaded leading to instability.

Last June saw a conference sponsored by the UK P&I Club titled “Weighing containers: Is it really that difficult?” and the results of the proceedings have now been published. The conference included presentations by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch, container handling specialists, a terminal operator, insurers and a surveyor. According to David Cheslin, Managing Director of organisers Dunelm Public Relations publication at this time is very appropriate, as he points out:

“On the 1st December, the World Shipping Council (WSC) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) announced that they were urging the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to establish an international legal requirement that all loaded containers be weighed at the marine port facility before they are stowed aboard a vessel for export. This has major ramifications for ship owners and terminals alike as the IMO is unlikely to ignore these two powerful bodies.

“Implementation of any legislation on this subject is clearly some years away but terminal operators would do well not to leave everything until the last minute. As the WSC/ICS announcement makes clear, this information should be made available to ship planners and will mean modifying the data links between the machine weighing the containers and the terminal’s operating system.”

The organisers of the conference have expressed a belief that because this is recognised as an important safety issue, some carriers may be prepared to pre-empt any IMO legislation by voluntarily introducing weighing at certain terminals. The general consensus at the conference was that those carriers who operate their own terminals would be best placed to do this, followed closely by those terminal operators with particularly strong links to specific carriers.

One point stressed by several delegates was that it is important to weigh ALL containers, including empties. Apparently there have been a number of cases where ‘empty’ containers have been found to be loaded with waste products and to put these on board a vessel in a stack containing genuine empties could easily initiate a stack collapse. It was also pointed out that there was a strong case for weighing unaccompanied trailers before they are loaded on freight RoRo vessels. This is already mandatory on RoPax vessels carrying 12 or more passengers.

Security experts also point out that an explosive device placed in an empty container would stand a better chance of being detected if empties had to be weighed. So far, the WSC and ICS have only shown concern regarding overweight containers. They should expect representations from various quarters demanding that all containers should be weighed. The real issue here is actually the misdeclaration of container weights, not just under declaration of cargo.

The UK P&I Club’s Communications Director, Nick Whitear says he feels stakeholders should start to consider their options immediately commenting:

“Any new legislation will require carriers to change their systems so that they can accept this new data and be ready to act when inaccurate weights are detected. Also, if they are not doing so already, ship owners need to start educating their customers about the importance of making accurate weight declarations so as to avoid any problems in the ports.”

Copies of the “Weighing containers: Is it really that difficult?” proceedings can be obtained from Dunelm Public Relations at a cost of £100 or €125 and include downloadable access to the full set of PowerPoint presentations. To order, please e-mail