Preventing misdeclared cargo dangers

Preventing misdeclared cargo dangers

Misdeclared cargo is a sensitive issue, and we like to think that nobody does it intentionally, but the numbers are telling. According to the National Cargo Bureau, as many as 20 percent of stowage plans in 2017 had errors with dangerous goods, and CINS estimates that 21 percent of cargo moves through ports as misdeclared. So as an industry, it is our collective duty to pay careful attention for reasons of safety, costs, and overall responsibility.

Often, it’s coverage of a ship fire where material with a high flashpoint was not properly classified and stowed next to the engine room that garners the interest of safety officers and supply chain managers. The story gets a lot of attention when we read about a ship a thousand miles from any coast with two dozen mariners on board in peril. The end results are catastrophic — damaged goods, crippling financial repercussions, and most important the potential for loss of life. 

With so many partners involved in getting goods from their point of origin to their final destination, it’s vital that everyone in the chain understands their role in reducing the risks of misdeclared cargo. It’s our industry responsibility to be proactive.  

The first step to avoiding misdeclared cargo is to ensure that the manufacturer has everything properly classified. It’s a sensitive topic and gray area when it comes to who is responsible for declaring the cargo. To avoid ambiguity, the first step is for the manufacturer to provide complete and accurate information to their transportation provider, freight forwarder, or shipping line. Consignees should request confirmation of the booking by the seller that the goods have been properly declared to the carrier as dangerous goods. In the event of an incident, an investigation will take place and investigators will often times go back to all of the parties involved — from origination to destination — to find out whether the information was correct or not properly classified.

This is where shippers have a choice and a great deal of control. With regard to moving chemicals, you should partner with a logistics management company or third-party logisitcs provider (3PL) that is well-versed in the complexity of chemical logistics and the importance of actively engaging in associations committed to the safe transport of materials.  

For example, partner with a company that is a part of the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care program with a core plan designed around auditing a manufacturer’s processes and procedures when shipping chemicals. From a manufacturer standpoint, there is the European Chemical Industry Council (Cefic) organization in Europe. For carriers, there is an organization called the International Vessel Owners Dangerous Goods Association (IVODGA). 

While misclassifications are often inadvertent mistakes due to lack of expertise and understanding of global logistics, there is the risk that cargo can be purposefully misdeclared.

This can be the case when a certain class of cargo isn’t going to make it through a port, leading the shipper to misclassify it to get it through. This is a dangerous situation that puts everyone at risk. Steamship lines and non-vessel operators should adopt a zero-tolerance policy whereby shippers who knowingly misrepresent the commodity they are shipping should be prevented from shipping future cargo.

An experienced partner will understand the lead time, the different port requirements, and know that misdeclaring or misidentifying cargo isn’t the solution. The harsh reality is that there are proven cases where ship fires have occurred because cargo coming from one point to another was misdeclared. The bottom line is we all have a responsibility to ensure information is accurate and properly declared.

Misdeclared cargo isn’t just limited to ships. It can also affect the entire supply chain, from trucking, intermodal, and rail. The responsibility falls on the entire supply chain, and it’s important to partner with a 3PL and transportation provider who can do this from door to delivery with a focus on safety. 

We are at a crossroads where the industry has an opportunity to better manage this risk instead of it being managed by regulators. An ethical and savvy partner will navigate the intricate details and complexities of shipping cargo in a safe and expedient way as long as it starts its journey with the proper classification and proper labeling. In the end, a quality logistics partner will work to make sure that everyone is a good player at critical shipping points — avoiding delays, penalties, or sanctions — to get the cargo to its end location safely.


Your opening sentence should underlined: "we like to think that no one does it intentionally". Unfortunately they often do it intentionally primarily to get lower freight rates and charges, at times just to get the cargo on-board. If they do it hundreds of times a year and get away with it virtually all of the time, they are way ahead of the game in their mind. It's that rare occasion when we see the plumes of smoke from a fire or an explosion when they hide for cover, and I'm pretty sure don't have a very guilty conscious over the issue. Sad to say, 45+ years of experience teaches us these unfortunate facts.