The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has amended the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention to require that a packed container’s gross weight be verified before the container can be loaded on board a ship.

Part 2 of 3 – Carriers

The new rule will come into force on 1 July 2016 and will apply globally. In a series of three articles, Elizabeth Turnbull and Marcia Peruccalook at the obligations placed on shippers, carriers and port terminals, and how the industry is preparing for the change.

In this second article, they highlight the implications for carriers. To access their first paper reviewing the obligations placed on shippers, click HERE.

The SOLAS amendment makes it clear that a packed container without a verified gross mass (VGM) cannot be loaded on board a ship. Although the obligation to obtain the VGM rests with the shipper, the carrier has the obligation to use a VGM to prepare a stowage plan and to refuse a container that has been provided without a VGM.

Issues for consideration

As a result, ahead of 1 July 2016, when the amendment comes into force, there are a number of issues that a carrier needs to consider.

The SOLAS amendment and the IMO Guidelines do not lay out specific deadlines for the shipper to submit a weight certification, leaving it to the parties in the supply chain to make their own arrangements. The IMO Guidelines provide that "[t]he master or his representative and the terminal representative should enter into arrangements to ensure the prompt sharing of verified container gross mass information provided by shippers. Existing communication systems may be used for the transmission and sharing of such verified container gross mass information."

The World Shipping Council has published Guidelines on the SOLAS weight verification amendment. They specifically advise carriers to provide shippers with "cut-off times" within which the carrier must receive the required container weight certification from the shipper for ship stowage planning. This is in line with the IMO Guidelines which provide that "it is the responsibility of the shipping company with whom the shipper enters into a contract of carriage to inform the shipper, following prior discussions with the port terminal, of any specific time deadline for submitting the information."

Carriers may also wish to take other steps to facilitate compliance, such as providing an online database of tare weights for their container fleets to assist those shippers using method 2, ie weighing all packages and cargo items and adding the tare mass (see "Part 1 – Shippers" for an explanation of the two methods).

If a signed weight certification is not provided by the shipper, the carrier can refuse to load the container or, alternatively, he can weigh the container. How the costs will be apportioned will depend on commercial considerations. However, as the shipper is ultimately responsible for verifying the container weight, the carrier may be able to pass on any costs it may have incurred in determining the container weight to the shipper.

When a certification is provided by the shipper, the carrier may rely on it and is not required to double check the VGM. Nevertheless, if the carrier has reason to believe that the VGM is incorrect, he may choose to take steps to determine the accurate weight. As above, given that the shipper bears the responsibility for providing an accurate weight certification, it is likely that any costs incurred can be passed on to the shipper.

Even when a shipper provides what appears to be an accurate weight certification, the ship’s master retains the discretion in deciding whether to load a container. The master can therefore refuse to load a container if he/she has reasons to believe that it cannot be safely transported, despite the provision of a VGM.

Recommendations

Carriers should evaluate their current service agreements, terms and conditions, bills of lading and tariffs to protect themselves against delayed shipments and additional costs associated with shippers not providing the weight verification on time or providing the wrong weight verification.

In addition, carriers should have sufficient documented procedures and record keeping in place in case of incidents. For example, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s Guidance Note (MGN 534) provides that in the event of an incident or an issue with a container stowed aboard a ship, the carrier and/or the terminal representative should be able to demonstrate that they have systems in place to ensure prior to the loading of packed containers that they have the verified gross mass for each container and that any changes in the container gross mass notified between pre-booking and loading aboard a ship are managed.