The latest fires at sea call for prompt measures

Recent container ship fires, including the fatal Maersk Honam fire last year, the APL Austria fire in February 2017, or even the MSC Flamina fire back in July 2012, call for action on tackling misdeclared cargo, especially in circumstances where dangerous cargoes are being misdeclared or undeclared to the carriers.

Following the deadly and costly incident of the Maersk Honam last year, where five crew members sadly lost their lives and the total damage has been reported to exceed $500m (as well as previous incidents at sea involving significant outbreaks of fire), Maersk was prompted to implement, amongst other measures, new guidelines on dangerous goods stowage. The implementation of the new guidelines was published on September 26, 2018, and steps have also been taken to create best management practices for dangerous goods stowage, in collaboration with ABS, Lloyd’s Register, the International Group of P&I Clubs, National Cargo Bureau, the TT Club and Exis Technologies.

The purpose of the guidelines is to implement the ‘Risk Based Dangerous Goods Stowage Principles’ with a view to minimising risk to crew, cargo, the environment and vessels in the event a fire. Ultimately six different risk zones were identified, namely:

  • Cargo covered under the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code will no longer be stowed next to (i) accommodation and (ii) the main propulsion plant, due to it being a zone with the lowest risk tolerance;
  • Similarly, any cargo (iii) below deck and (iv) in the middle of the vessel will also have a low risk tolerance; and,
  • Conversely, any cargo on deck either on (v) the fore or (vi) aft of the vessel will have a higher risk tolerance.

In addition, Maersk will continue to utilise statistics on container fires in the Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS). Pursuant to this system Maersk will take a considered view as to which UN numbers can be stored in each of the aforementioned six areas. Furthermore, Maersk will continue to review its rules and policies for accepting dangerous goods, including how to further enhance and improve these rules.

Misdeclared cargo as an ongoing issue

The main reasons for misdeclaring dangerous cargoes are to save money and time, especially because these types of cargoes require special packaging and stuffing. The potential misdeclaration of dangerous container cargoes and the damages arising out of a firebreak on board the modern Triple E-Class container vessels, with a capacity over 18,000 teu, could be shockingly high. To put figures into perspective:

  • Experts have recently reported that about one-third of all containers are wrongly declared or are misstated;
  • It is estimated that about 10% of the containers in a typical voyage would probably hold hazardous or dangerous materials; and,
  • Applying these figures to the capacity of the Triple E-Class container vessels would translate to potentially 600 containers with dangerous cargo stuffed inside them - a ticking time bomb, with potential catastrophic consequences.

Against that background, the question is: what are the solutions for tackling the problem of misdeclared cargoes? The measures implemented by Maersk in the recent months should certainly assist and hopefully reduce the threats to container ships. However, perhaps more drastic actions may be required for tightening measures against misdeclared or suspicious cargoes in the wake of the recent vessel fires.

Interestingly, the Standard Club has signalled in its edition of Standard Safety that “the booking process accounts for a large percentage of misdeclared dangerous cargo incidents”.

If misdeclared cargoes are timely identified and are prevented from being accepted for carriage, especially by raising awareness of the risks giving rise to certain dangerous goods and the underlying issues, then dangers to the ship and its crew could eventually be averted. It is, therefore, vital that all of the agents and parties in the marine industry take active steps, including having robust and reliable procedures to keep misdeclared containers off vessels. Tackling misdeclared cargoes should be at the forefront of the marine industry agenda.