The eighteenth IMO subcommittee meeting on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers (DSC 18) concluded in September 2013 with a controversial compromise solution to the question of container weighing.

The issue

Insurers have long noted that misdeclared container weights present safety hazards to vessels, their crews and cargo, as well as port facilities and logistics workers.

Shippers will be required to verify the gross weight of containers and state these values in shipping documents. Failure to provide weight values will result in a container not being loaded onto the ship. However, containers carried on chassis or trailers driven on or off Ro-Ro ships engaged in short international voyages will be exempt from weighing. New paragraphs will be added to SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea Convention) Regulation VI/2 Cargo Information to this effect.

DSC 18 proposed by way of compromise two methods for weight verification. The first is weighing each packed container using calibrated and certified equipment. The second is weighing all packages and cargo items, pallets, dunnage and other constituent parts, then adding the tare weight of the empty container, using a certified method approved by the competent authority of the state in which the container is packed.

The latter method affords flexibility to the shipper, as not every container must be weighed, thus reducing the time and cost of compliance. On the other hand, sceptics such as the ITF point to the higher error margin of this technique, which they say undermines the proposal. Despite the apparent compromise, the ESC, in opposition to DSC 18’s decision, has suggested that the matter of proper stowage has been overlooked.

The latter method affords flexibility to the shipper, as not every container must be weighed, thus reducing the time and cost of compliance. On the other hand, sceptics such as the ITF point to the higher error margin of this technique, which they say undermines the proposal. Despite the apparent compromise, the ESC, in opposition to DSC 18’s decision, has suggested that the matter of proper stowage has been overlooked.

For its part, the insurance market has generally welcomed the amendments to SOLAS as a step in the right direction, though a number of industry bodies, such as the International Union of Marine Insurance, have stated that they would prefer to see the weighing of all loaded containers become compulsory.

What next?

The proposals will go before the IMO’s maritime safety committee this month, with final adoption expected in November 2014. Formal regulations are expected to take effect in July 2016.

Plenty is left to be finalised before the amendments are implemented. There are concerns about the lack of guidance regarding how and at what stage container weight will be certified, and by whom, in order to ensure a standardised method of calculation and to avoid creating pinch points in the supply chain. There is also no consensus on repercussions for those who misdeclare. Industry representatives agree that parties need to co-operate to reach a solution acceptable to all.

Overall, the DSC 18 proposal is likely to improve container safety, despite its perceived weaknesses. All eyes will be on the IMO to ensure the effective implementation – and enforcement – of the new measures. Insurers should take comfort from the steps which have been taken to address this serious matter, although it remains to be seen whether compromise is the correct answer in the circumstances.