© Khunaspix Dreamstime.

Following the recent success of the container weighing initiative at the International Maritime Organization, sea freight safety campaigners have turned their attention to what appears to be the far larger problem of how cargo is packed and secured within containers.

At a seminar in London yesterday, organised by the International Cargo Handling Co-ordination Association (ICHCA) – the industry body that chaired the IMO’s working group on the container weighing amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea regulations – delegates heard that since November 2011, a new code of practice for packing cargo transport units (CTUs) has also been in the making.

The code is the result of a tri-partite working group, set up by the IMO in conjunction with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which organises international road transport. The new guidelines follow growing recognition that the way cargo is packed and secured within containers and other CTUs has as much bearing on transport safety as what it weighs.

According to IMO data, around half a dozen national maritime authorities operate container inspection regimes, which mainly target dangerous goods shipments. Although this data was a sample, only 0.01% of container shipments, a worrying 30% were found to be wrongly packed.

“We have a much bigger problem today than the one  just discussed by the IMO,” said Peregrine Storrs-Fox, risk management director of specialist freight transport insurer, the TT Club.

the editor of the new guide, Bill Brassington, owner of ETS Consulting, said part of the problem with poor cargo packing stemmed from the lack of guidance and training for container packers.

“The IMO published its first guidelines in in 1997, which had a print run of about 1,000 copies, and it took about a decade for the IMO to get rid of them. The information contained in it is simply not very good,” he said.

Creation of the new guidelines came about after the IMO identified a need to update its guidelines on the packing and securing of dangerous goods, after several high-profile maritime accidents involving dangerous goods on containerships, such as the MSC Flaminia. The vessel had to abandoned by its crew in July 2012 in the middle of the Atlantic after a series of fires broke out in containers which could have been caused by dangerous goods that had not been declared on the manifest by shippers.

Mr Brassington said further discussions about packing guidelines with officials from the ILO established that the problem of poor packing, and the implications for safety throughout the supply chain, went beyond dangerous goods.

“It soon became apparent that all sorts of things were going wrong that shouldn’t. Our research began to uncover worrying information. Only 23% of the industry participants we surveyed were aware of the IMO’s guidelines, and only 15% were actually using them. More widely used was individual shipping line guidance to customers, or the Health & Safety Executive’s road haulage guidelines in the UK.

“What also became apparent was the sheer scale of the problem, and the way it went far beyond just the maritime part of the supply chain. In one year alone in the US, there were 18,000 straight line – that is, unassisted – trucking accidents in the US.

A draft of the new guidelines has been drawn up by Mr Brassington, working under the aegis of a group formed from a variety cargo interests and chaired by Global Shippers Forum general secretary Chris Welsh.

“The key stakeholders agreed that the revision should focus on transparency and ease of use, rather than taking regulatory approach,” said Mr Welsh. “There was a common recognition that what we didn’t want was a whole new set of complex regulations.

“The chief reason for this is to be found in why this problem exists today: because there is a lack of knowledge right through the supply chain. Go back a few decades, and companies such as Unilever would employ 30 people in its shipping department who had in-depth knowledge of how to pack cargo. Today these companies have a few people in a logistics department.”

However, while the guidelines, which will be debated and have final amendments added in a series of meeting between 4 and 6 November, at the ILO headquarters in Geneva, will be classed as a “non-mandatory code of practice”, ICHCA technical director Richard Brough said this designation was as good as new legislation in many regimes.

“It will be up to individual nations to apply the new code, but in the UK and many European jurisdictions, if a code of practice exists, and an individual or organisation doesn’t use it and is found to be the cause of an accident as a result of not following it, they would be liable in a court of law.”

The Geneva discussion will focus on around 600 recommendations that have been drawn up by member countries. As long as those are agreed upon, the UNECE WP24 will have three days, beginning 18 November, to come up with a final code. The UNECE and ILO are expected to ratify the code in March next year, and the IMO in May, after which it will be made universally available.

Comment on this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.