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On 14 July 2012, in the middle of the Atlantic, a container in the cargo hold of the 6,732teu MSC Flaminia exploded (pictured), setting the ship ablaze and taking the lives of three seafarers.

The incident is one of many to blight the container industry over the past decade and, like many of these, the root cause of the casualty will probably never be made public, due to the complexities of international law.

In 2010, following concerns arising from an increase in such incidents – and the consequences for the multi-billion dollar industry from rogue containers – five of the top-20-ranked ocean carriers created an independent body to build a database from case histories that could be used for analysis by transport insurer the TT Club.

Since this Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS) was formed, several other carriers have joined in and it is estimated that the group now accounts for some 60% of global container slot capacity.

CINS’s task is to capture key data provided by liner operators relating to cargo and container incidents. This data includes the cargo nature, packaging, routing, type of incident and its root cause, together with a severity rating.

However, to comply with anti-trust regulations, the information must explicitly exclude details of the shipper.

According to the current chair of CINS, Maersk Line’s Uffe Ernst-Frederiksen, the group’s aim four years ago was “to provide early warning of worrying trends” and he added that 2013 “provided ample justification of this”.

In its detailed review of last year’s data, CINS reported that while the number of “high severity” incidents was less than half that in the previous year, “medium” and “low”-rated incidents soared by over 80%. And 46% of reports cited mis-declaration of cargo as the cause – well ahead of the 27% secondary cause of “leakage” and a five-fold increase on 2012.

Geographical and seasonal trends are also beginning to emerge as the database matures, according to TT Club risk management director Peregrine Storrs-Fox.

“For example, during the middle months, June, July and August, of 2013, there was a clear increase in the number of incidents recorded,” he said.

Indeed, CINS noted that almost two-thirds of the onboard fires occurred during this period, suggesting an impact from the deployment of insufficiently trained, casual labour at shippers’ premises during these peak holiday months.

Meanwhile, incidents recorded at ports of loading show 22% originating in China, 18% in Asia-Pacific and 15% in European ports.

“The significance of this may need to be validated in future analyses, but could greatly assist the lines – and safety and training organisations – in targeting resources to improve the quality of controls for packing and dispatching cargo entering the supply chain,” said Mr Storrs-Fox.

With two full operational years under its belt, CINS says its data is able to prove the “near-miss risk” from the incident types which have the potential to result in “loss of life or disaster and environmental damage”.

But, it added, the increased findings of cargo mis-declaration is “hardly reassuring for any stakeholder in the industry”.

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