What’s next for box weighting enforcement?

  • Date: 04/03/2016

4 months to go until the SOLAS convention, requiring as a condition of loading a packed container onto a ship for export, that the container has a verified gross mass enters into force. From 1st July 2016, the requirement will become mandatory and will apply globally. However, the US Coast Guard has recently indicated that it may struggle to enforce the new regulation in the US, as it has no jurisdiction to regulate either shippers or terminal operators.

As IMO regulations stand, enforcement responsibility is assigned to the flag state rather than port state.  Despite the potential debate regarding enforcement in the US, the IMO encourages all shippers to verify container weights and make sure the SOLAS amendment is implemented, to ensure the safety of vessels.

Looking at the specific SOLAS obligations, what can be learned?

a. The shipper

By the complex nature of all things logistics, the ‘shipper’ may encompass a range of people involved in the contracting, packing and transporting of cargo. However, the key commercial relationship in question is the person whose name is placed on the ocean carrier’s bill of lading. Thus, in many cases, the responsibility for actual ‘verified’ declaration will rest with a freight forwarder, logistics operator or NVOC. This means that often reliance will have to be placed on others to have adequate certified methods to provide verified gross mass – particularly for consolidation business.

“in many cases, the responsibility for actual ‘verified’ declaration will rest with a freight forwarder, logistics operator or NVOC”

Many suppliers of homogenous shipments will already have advanced systems, which merely require some form of national certification. Similar certification will apply to the concession in the IMO Guidelines  that sealed packages bearing accurate mass information ‘clearly and permanently marked on their surfaces’ do not need to be weighed again.

Apart from having a sustainable method by which the gross mass is verified, the shipper also needs to communicate it (‘signed’ meaning that there is an accountable person) in advance of the stow plan. The information will be sent by the shipper to the carrier, but with joint service arrangements there may be a number of carriers involved, with one taking responsibility to consolidate the manifest information, in addition to communication with the terminal. Thus, there is no precise time – although advance cargo information requirements may already be bringing timing forward for many shipments.

b. The master

This character in the process is not only the ‘old man’ standing on the ship’s bridge but also a number of functions within the carrier’s organisation. As mentioned, with joint services, there may be a number of carriers involved, albeit that the actual operator of the ship will be one taking the lead role for each particular ship.

Implicit in the SOLAS amendment is that the carrier sets in place processes that ensure that verified gross mass is available and used in planning the ship stow. Arguably, each carrier will need to amend systems and processes to capture additional information (such as whether the shipper is using Method 1 or Method 2 and fields for booked, declared, verified and even measured gross mass). However, the simplest might be to amend the booking process, so that the gross mass information is left blank in the system until ‘verified’ data are available. This will be effective if it is clearly understood by all partner lines and terminals with whom the line communicates.

“Implicit in the SOLAS amendment is that the carrier sets in place processes that ensure that verified gross mass is available and used in planning the ship stow”

The explicit obligation of the master is simply that he shall not load a container for which a verified gross mass is not available. This does not mean that one with a verified gross mass will be loaded, since that would derogate from the traditional rights of a master.

c. The terminal representative

Recognising the pivotal nature of the port interface, the terminals have been drawn into the new regulation as recipients of information for ship stow planning and, critically, in a joint and several responsibility not to load on board a ship if a verified gross mass is not available.

There has been considerable debate as to whether terminals need to position themselves to be able to weigh containers, not least because of the cost of creating appropriate infrastructure, and amending systems and procedures, with uncertain return on investment. In most terminals, the commercial relationship is with the carrier alone, although there are many parts of the world where containers are packed at the port, in which case the terminal activities will in future include assisting the shipper in producing the verified gross mass.

d. Competent authority

The SOLAS amendment and related guidelines place responsibility on the national administrations to set up or implement appropriate standards for calibration (eg. weights and measures regulations) and ways of certifying. The overtly named parties (shipper, master and terminal representative) rely on this to work smoothly and, preferably, consistently on a global basis in order to facilitate trade.

“The SOLAS amendment places responsibility on the national administrations to set up or implement appropriate standards for calibration and ways of certifying”

Clarity of such processes needs to be matched by consistency in enforcement. Talk of ‘tolerances’ is disingenuous. SOLAS calls for accuracy. Everyone appreciates the some cargo and packing material may be hygroscopic, thereby potentially increasing mass during the journey, but that need not mask fraudulent activity, nor entice over-zealous enforcement. The UK Marine Guidance Note may be instructive here, stating that enforcement action will only be volunteered where the difference between documented and actual weight exceeds a threshold.

It is suggested that key measures of success of the revised SOLAS regulation will include not only safety of containerised movements, but also free movement of boxes through all modes of surface transport, and a shift in behaviour and culture throughout the unit load industry.

The UK Club in conjunction with the TT Club, have outlined the key requirements and actions for container ship operators in the publication: SOLAS VI Regulation 2.

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