The SOLAS Convention is generally considered as the most important of all international treaties regarding merchant ships safety. The first version was adopted in 1914, as a response to the Titanic disaster and has been amended on numerous occasions since then.
A major rule of SOLAS to be effective July 1st, 2016 states that « any shipping container leaving from any port in the world must be accompanied by a shipping document listing the verified gross mass of a container in order to be loaded onto a ship.
The container weight mandate from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) under the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention comes after misdeclared weights contributed to several maritime casualties such as, for example, the breakup and subsequent beaching of the MSC Napoli on the southern U.K. coast in 2007. After the accident a report of investigation was issued by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch of Southampton describing the disaster as follows : « During the morning of January 18th, 2007, when on passage in the English Channel, the 4419 TEU container ship MSC Napoli encountered heavy seas, causing the ship to pitch heavily. The ship was making good a speed of 11 knots and the height of the waves was up to 9m. At about 1105, the vessel suffered a catastrophic failure of her hull in way of her engine room. The master quickly assessed the seriousness of the situation and decided to abandon ship. Following the broadcast of a distress call at 1125, the 26 crew abandoned the vessel in an enclosed lifeboat. They were later recovered by two Royal Navy helicopters. There were no injuries. »
The audit of the containers removed from MSC Napoli and the deadload calculated on departure, indicate that the declared weights of many of the containers carried by the vessel were inaccurate: investigators found that of the 660 containers stowed on deck that remained dry, 137 were overweight by more than three tonnes each. The total weight of those containers was 312 tonnes heavier than declared on the cargo manifest.
Around up to 20% of the 130 million ocean freight containers traded globally each year are supposed to have misdeclared weight.
New IMO regulations are therefore going to be effective July 1st, 2016 although many organisations are not yet prepared for this significant change to global container operations. Under new amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the IMO has agreed on two methods for a freight container’s gross mass verification (VGM):
Method 1: Weigh the container and its contents on a calibrated and certified instrument such as a weighbridge or other piece of suitable equipment.
Method 2: Weigh all of the cargo items being packed into the container along with dunnage, securing and lashing materials and the tare weight of the container and aggregate them together to arrive at an aggregated weight.
It means every shipper has now to weigh shipments and to issue a « shipping document signed either electronically or in hard copy on the bill of lading listing the verified gross mass of a container». Many Port Authorities and terminal operators will propose container weighing services. Some others like Long Beach are reluctant to provide such a service for East Ports that are not yet ready to deliver this service.
But the final liability of VGM declaration shall remain under the shipper’s sole responsability.
Port Authorities are also concerned about container weight controls. China said for example it has opted for random checks on container weights by its “marine management agencies” to meet its enforcement obligation in complying with the mandatory verified gross mass of containers. Many other Authorities claim they are not ready yet to apply this new rule effective July 1st, 2016 and even more important are not totally sure how these new rules shall be implemented.
Apart from the pressure put on ports and terminals to implement the new rule on time and put in place efficient controls, shippers are now required to be compliant as from July 1st, 2016. It means investments in container weighing solutions – a new business that is developing now : mostly portable solutions to be used by shippers at their own facility – should have been done already and staff training already planned.
Only 6 weeks before the effective date are shippers SOLAS ready ?
And who is going to pay for the cost of compliance ?