Container ship lines say it’s not unusual for their cargoes’ actual weights to be 3 to 7 percent higher than reported weights. Misdeclared container weights have been blamed for innumerable accidents, and even deaths.
Now, several industry and labor groups and the U.S., Danish and Dutch governments are urging the International Maritime Organization to require loaded containers to be weighed before they’re put aboard ship. “We’ve reached the day and age where this ought to be standard operating practice, but it isn’t,” said Chris Koch, president and CEO of the World Shipping Council, which represents container ship lines.
The WSC joined BIMCO, the International Association of Ports and Harbors, the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers Federation in seeking IMO action. The IMO’s subcommittee on dangerous goods, solid cargoes and containers will consider the proposal at its next meeting in September.
“Misdeclared container weights are a recurring safety problem on shore, on ships and on roadways. It is time to fix the problem,” BIMCO Secretary-General Torben Skaanild said.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations dating to the 1970s require marine terminals in the U.S. to weigh export containers. Other nations do not have similar requirements for their export boxes.
The international Safety of Life at Sea convention requires cargo interests to provide carriers with accurate weights, but SOLAS signatory nations don’t enforce the rules on shippers. “Unless it’s required, no one’s going to do it,” Koch said.
“Most shippers don’t have weighing scales and can’t weigh the box where it is stuffed. The scales on the way to the port may not be available, and they’re not used anyway,” he said. “If the shipper can’t certify that the weight is accurate, the place to weigh it is when it arrives at the terminal, just as the U.S. does for exports.”
Having accurate weights in advance would make the container’s actual weight available to vessel stowage planners. Without accurate weight data, they must make last-minute adjustments when a box listed at 14 tons turns out to weigh 24 tons.
“It’s a safety problem that doesn’t go away and poses risks to the ship’s crew, the longshore labor and the other cargo on the ship,” Koch said. “When a container stack collapses and boxes go overboard, it’s not just the overweight box. Perfectly legitimate and properly declared boxes of other shippers also go overboard.”
The proposed IMO regulations would make cargo interests, marine terminals and carriers jointly responsible for accurate weights. Koch said shared responsibility would remove commercial pressure to ignore misdeclared weights or shop for a terminal or carrier willing to bend the rules.
Although safety is the primary reason for ensuring accurate container weights, it also would provide an additional tool in cargo security. Being able to compare actual weights with normal weights for a commodity would help with security risk assessment.
Geoff Giovanetti, managing director of the Wine and Spirits Shippers Association, supports weighing of containers before export. In addition to improving safety, pre-weighing would make it easier to determine the cause of discrepancies and to correct them before the box is stowed aboard ship, he said.
“If there is an overweight, I’d much rather discover it when the box is as close to its origin as possible,” Giovanetti said. “It makes the problem easier to correct. If I discover it at the destination port, all I can do is take the container’s cargo apart and hope it catches up with the legal load later on.”
Shipper support for container weighing isn’t unanimous, however. The European Shippers’ Council called overweight containers “a relatively small risk factor” in container safety and said the request for IMO action was “a false remedy for an ill-defined disease.”
The council questioned whether the IMO is “the right institution for regulating container safety issues.” The ESC said the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe and the International Labor Organization “should take the lead in improving the quality of container stuffing and possibly prescribe legislation on the issue.”
International Longshoremen’s Association President Harold Daggett has listed weighing of import containers as one of the ILA’s top demands in this year’s East and Gulf Coast port labor negotiations. Besides safety, Daggett says underreporting of container weights shortchanges the ILA on carriers’ payment of $2-a-ton royalties that support union bonuses and benefits.
Waterfront management says weighing import containers before they’re released from terminals would create congestion and delays and add unnecessary costs. Weighing containers after arrival at the port also would do nothing to address the risks that overweight containers pose to seafarers.