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The European Shippers Council has set out its opposition to the broad grouping of maritime interests that have called for the International Maritime Organization’s Safety of Life at Sea (Solas) regulations to be amended to require all containers to be weighed before loading at the export port to ensure to that the actual weights match the declared weight on the shipping documents.

The proposal – put forward by the Danish and Dutch governments in conjunction with shipping bodies the World Shipping Council, BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping – follows from what its proponents claim is mounting evidence that mis-declared container weights are a major cause of accidents in the container supply chain: from the series of collapsed container stacks that have occurred on box vessels over recent years, to the capsizing of the MSC Napoli in the English Channel in 2007, as well as to a series of truck rollovers.

However, Marco Wiesehahn, member of the ESC’s maritime transport committee, argued that there is already a Solas requirement for shippers to correctly declare weights, and the new proposals that make it the legal responsibility of the shipper to verify the declared weights will not make container shipping any safer.

In the case of the MSC Napoli, the Marine Accident Investigation Branch report found that although 20% of the boxes were heavier than their declared weights, it added that “the effect of the discrepancies alone would have been insufficient to cause hull failure”.

“It was bad maintenance of the vessel itself that was the cause of the accident,” said Mr Wiesehahn told The Loadstar. “Instead of just focusing on the container weights we have to get back to the core of the problem: firstly the lashing of the containers on the stack; secondly the maintenance procedures of the carriers; and thirdly the fact that it is common practice that around 10% of all containers loaded on a ship will end up on a stack different to that on the stowage plan.

“Even if a shipper correctly declares a weight, and verifies it, there is still a 10% chance that it will be put in the wrong stack and cause a collapse.”

He also argued that under the current regime carriers are already in position to refuse containers whose weight has been mis-declared.

“We already have the existing Solas regulations, but the execution of these isn’t being taken seriously. Carriers have the opportunity to say to shippers who they know regularly mis-declare weights that they will refuse their cargo, but they do not do that on commercial grounds.”

Further, he stated that the ESC has no opposition to containers being weighed at terminals, but said that terminal operators, most of whom have the ability to weigh boxes, oppose the notion that they be held legally responsible for verifying container weights

Although it advocates weighing containers within terminals as the most practical solution, the WSC-BIMCO-ICS proposal also outlines the possibility of weighing them outside ports, such as at shippers’ loading facilities, a prospect that Mr Weisehahn described as difficult to enforce: “In developed countries with well organised systems that may be feasible, but in other parts of the world you do wonder how that will be enforced.

“The IMO is also a maritime institution that has a right to define legislation for the sea, but container transport also takes place on land and inland waterways, where the IMO has no legal status, and what is needed for that regulation on land is expertise of land and inland waterway transport, and the IMO does not have that.”

He argued that it is actually the joint IMO-International Labour Organisation-UN Economic Commission for Europe working group into cargo transport units – which last met in April – that should take responsibility for setting new regulation because it represented a broader set of interests.

He admitted however that there was more shippers could do in terms of stowing and packing containers to make them safer to transport. “We are not running away from that. There is a need to increase the quality of container stowage, and we have a responsibility to do that.”

At last week’s TOC Container Supply Chain event, a seminar on the subject heard from BIMCO’s chief marine technical officer Aron Sorensen that it hopes that the proposal will be ratified IMO’s maritime safety committee and come into force in 2017.

As Maersk Line’s head of fleet management John Leach pointed out at the same session, it is absurd that “some 50 years into the container business we are still loading vessels where cargo weights are not really known”.

As a footnote, it is worth quoting recent TT Club research that shows that over the past six years, it has received a total of 357 accident claims costing $12.8m that were as a result of bad container stowage and handling. That equated to just over 10% of all supply chain claims made over that period, making it the largest single cause of accidents in the sector.

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