Flags of Convenience: Making Cargo Safety Inconvenient

By MarEx 2012-12-18 13:29:00

SOLAS amendment regarding the accurate weighing of containers is shelved.

Op-ed by Richard Madden

Two countries providing flags of convenience (FOC) to merchant vessels, Panama and Cyprus, threw up roadblocks to the safe carriage of containerized cargo last week.  With over 80% of world cargo being moved on container ships and those ships getting ever larger, any measure that can make these shipments safer must be considered.  Sadly, these countries find that some proposed measures are inconvenient.

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Sub-Committee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargoes and Containers wrapped up its most recent meeting on 21 September 2012.  Among the items on the agenda were measures to prevent the loss of containers at sea.  Two proposals were submitted to the Sub-Committee requiring accurate container weights – one from a coalition of the World Shipping Council (WSC) and numerous industry advocacy groups and countries, and the other from Germany.

The WSC published a synopsis of maritime casualties involving overweight containers on 12 December 2011. The paper indicates that serious maritime casualties, including the capsizing of one vessel and structural failure of another, as well as significant cargo and vessel damage, can be directly attributed to misdeclared container weights.  In some instances, the actual weight of containers was up to 350% higher than declared.

The two proposals differed in that the WSC proposal required the actual weighing of the stuffed container whereas the German proposal would also allow the calculation of the container weight by the shipper based on the tare weight of the container and the weight of the contents.  While neither proposal received overwhelming support, member state delegations agreed that amendments to SOLAS were required to increase the responsibility of the shipper in regard to the declaration of container weights.

Due to “technical objections” by the delegations from Panama, Cyprus and Greece, further discussion on this matter has been pushed to a correspondence group with another report due in September 2013.  At this point, the earliest a SOLAS amendment requiring the accurate weighing or declaration of weight of a container might come into effect is 2017.  A WSC representative, possibly indicating what was discussed behind the scenes, stated, “Alternatively, those resisting change may continue to succeed in delaying an effective regulatory response by the IMO to this problem.”

Meanwhile, those loading container ships or working in container yards are left with the question, “What does that container really weigh?”  For now, we must accept the shipper’s declaration for what it is – possibly useless.  The monitoring of outside indicators such as strain on lashing or cargo gear or position of the load line may be the only true indication of what that container really weighs.

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Captain Richard Madden is a maritime consultant and SUNY Maritime graduate with over 20 years of industry experience.  He holds a USCG Unlimited Master’s license and has sailed on government vessels, offshore towing vessels, tankers, container ships, coastal towing and general cargo vessels.  He is an actively sailing merchant mariner with a focus on safe operations. maddenmaritime@gmail.com