Shippers may be flouting container weight rules, officials say

Port of Antwerp. Credit: Shutterstock


Inadequate policing of SOLAS-verified gross mass (VGM) regulations may be encouraging shippers to flout the rules, senior figures from across the supply chain have claimed.


The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention’s VGM amendment was introduced in July 2016 to ensure the accuracy of container weights to prevent vessels from becoming destabilised and stacks collapsing or being lost overboard.


The regulation requires the shipper to provide a VGM declaration, calculated using a certified weighing process, to a carrier prior to loading. Despite initial reports of shippers’ compliance with the amendment there are signs that, two years on, many may be ignoring the ruling.


A port and terminal operations manager at a major European port that offers a VGM weighing and certification service to shippers, told Fairplay's sister publication, Safety at Sea, “The number of containers being weighed on our system has steadily dropped since the regulation was introduced. Either shippers are weighing boxes themselves, or at another third-party service, or they are not doing it at all. We believe many have seen that there is not any concern from Port Authorities here, or in other countries, to properly monitor the SOLAS VGM implementation, so they disregard the rules.


“In the first year they might have said, ‘It’s a criminal offence if we don’t do it’. But now they don’t see any control from authorities and they think, ‘If no one is controlling it and my competitor isn’t doing it, then why should I?” he said.


CertiWeight, a firm providing a container weighing and VGM certification service in the Port of Antwerp, says some shippers may be acting illegally by failing to comply with the national interpretation of the regulation.


SOLAS VGM permits two methods of verifying the gross mass of packed containers. Under Method 1, a packed container has its weight verified at an accredited weigh bridge, at a port, or elsewhere and a VGM certificate is issued. Under Method 2, the weights of all packages and cargo items, including pallets, dunnage, and other securing material to be packed in a container are added to the tare mass of the container, using a certified method approved by the member state where the container is packed.


In Belgium, shippers that want to use Method 2 must gain approval for their method of calculation from the Ministry of Transport and those that are approved are entered on to an official list.

“I do believe that a lot, and I mean a LOT, of shippers use Method 2 but are legally not allowed to do so,” said Frank Van Reybroeck at CertiWeight. “The list of approved companies on the Ministry of Transport website includes only about 200 firms, but it is possible that many more are submitting VGMs based on Method 2. Their weights may be correct but for sure they are not legal.”


Regional Port State Control is required to verify compliance with SOLAS requirements and any non-compliance is enforceable according to specific national legislation. A lack of adequate policing in the Port of Antwerp may have fuelled a lack of compliance among shippers visiting the port.


Kristin van Kesteren-Stefan, a senior advisor for Trade Facilitation Antwerp Port Authority, said, “Since the regulation came into force, we have not had any complaints about the weighing process from carriers, terminals, or anyone. That may be because there are no controls at this moment. The Belgian government previously said they wanted to implement controls after one year, but I have not heard if they were introduced, if it affected VGM documents, or if containers are being weighed a second time to check compliance.”


Similar concerns were flagged up in a technical paper published by the insurer TT Club last year, The VGM Ruling: A Review of the Implementation, which found that national governments were too focused on other regulatory issues or did not have the resources to support SOLAS VGM regulation.


John Butler, president and chief executive officer of the World Shipping Council (WSC), told Fairplay, “The next critical piece for SOLAS VGM is oversight. A number of governments have issued guidance on implementing the regulations and taken other steps, but what we haven’t seen much public discussion of is actual enforcement activity. This is vital if the regulation is going to be effective for safety and to create a level commercial playing field.”


SOLAS VGM was developed in response to a spate of major accidents linked to mis-declared container weights, including the grounding of the container ship MSC Napoli in the English Channel in 2007, a fire on board MSC Flamina, in 2012, and a fire on Maersk Kampala in 2015.


The International Maritime Organization has always required that shippers declare the gross mass of cargo and containers, but it was widely known that the figures were often inaccurate, and some have claimed that as many as 20% of all export containers were mis-declared.



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