Shippers must provide verified weights for containers loaded onto ships under changes in the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) that went into effect July 1, 2016. The new rule places responsibility on shippers for providing verified weights – technically, verified gross masses (or VGMs) – for containers loaded onto ships for export. (For those wishing to revisit high school physics to determine the difference between “weight” and “mass,” check here.)

In implementing this change, the International Marine Organization (IMO) has prohibited the loading of packed containers on vessels unless the vessel operator and the terminal operator have shipper-certified VGMs for the container. No VGM? No loading.

Safety concerns steered the IMO to implement the new requirements – the sheer number of containers lost at sea, weight and balance issues on vessels, and the danger unstable loads present maritime workers are at the heart of the issue. Incidents like the MSC Napoli shipwreck, which was due in part to unbalanced loading, are emblematic of the concern the IMO seeks to address with the new mandate. As stated in the Report on the Investigation of the Structural Failure of MSC Napoli (2007), “Container shipping is the only sector of the industry in which the weight of a cargo is not known. If the stresses acting on container ships are to be accurately controlled, it is essential that containers are weighed before embarkation.”

Individual countries enforce the SOLAS requirements, and fines and other punishment for violations are determined on a country-by-country basis.

The IMO announced the changes many months ago, allowing vessel operators, terminal operators, freight forwarders, and shippers time to implement procedures to address these issues. (The revised SOLAS regulations in Chapter VI, Regulation 2, Par. 6., can be found HERE.) Most vessel operators, terminal operators, forwarders, and volume shippers are already keenly aware of the new SOLAS requirements and have implemented policies to ensure compliance.

Shippers in particular need to be aware of the new requirements since the responsibility for verification of weights falls squarely on their shoulders. Understanding the means of compliance for the new SOLAS mandate before tendering a container for export will guide shippers making international container shipments moving forward. In brief:

  • It is up to the shipper to verify the VGM of the loaded container. This can be done by one of two methods:
    • Weight by Difference: Place the packed container on a weighbridge, and subtract the weight of the truck, chassis, and fuel. The remaining weight is the verified weight of the loaded container. All scales must be certified in accordance with national standards (i.e., of the country where the weighing occurs).
    • Weight by Addition: Weigh the container itself, the packaging, palleting, any dunnage, padding, straps, and other materials in (or to be placed in) the container. Add all these weights together to determine the weight of the container. The Weight by Addition method is subject to governmental approvals and certifications. (It is commonly referred to as the “Rational Method,” but has been a source of contention in the industry. Some carriers will not accept weights verified through this method.) 

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) has approved both methods, but the first method is generally preferred by terminal operators and vessel operators. In addition to approving the above two methods of determining VGM, the USCG gave broad approval language: “For the purposes of determining the VGM of a container, any equipment currently being used to comply with federal or state laws, including the Intermodal Safe Container Transportation Act and the container weight requirements in 29 CFR 1918.85(b), are acceptable for the purpose of complying with SOLAS.” More information can be found here.

  • Shippers will then declare (which can be by electronic or paper means) the verified weight and certify that the container was weighed properly.

Many terminals and vessel operators began implementing the new SOLAS requirements in advance of the July 1, 2016, effective date. Perhaps as a result of these preparations, the early reports are that the international shipping industry was able to smoothly implement the new requirements with little disruption. We have reports that shippers are complaining that fees for weighing containers (VGM fees) are excessive at some terminals; fees have been reported to be as low as $25 per container weighing. At this stage, it is difficult to predict the real penalties for failure to comply with the new SOLAS requirements, but the safe course is for shippers to abide by the requirements.

The IMO has published implementation guidelines to assist those involved in container shipment to provide guidance and to work toward uniformity in determining verified container weights. Those guidelines can be found here.