New container weight regulations mean that it has never been more important to accurately declare container weights. The Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organisation has given the green light to amend the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) in a move which will force shippers to declare the verified gross mass (VGM) of containers prior to them being shipped. The new regulations came into force on 1st July this year.

The practice of mis-declaring container weights is down to a number of factors: shippers deliberately reducing the declared weight of their containers in a bid to reduce costs, exporters or freight forwarders cutting corners and merely estimating container weights, and a worryingly regular tendency to not include the weight of pallets, dunnage and securing materials in the final declared weight of containers; all go some way towards explaining why the IMO has decided to intervene and tackle this issue head on. This practice of mis-declaration is so common in the industry that the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association's technical and administrative director, Richard Brough, estimates that as many as 20 per cent of export containers are mis-declared.

So, in practice, how does the IMO expect shippers to weigh their containers? According to the new directive, any export-laden container must either "(1) be weighed in its entirety at an approved weighing station (weighbridge, or port weighing facility), or alternatively (2) have all items in the container, including pallets and dunnage, weighed and then added to the tare weight of the container". The new regulations also state conclusively that "the container should not be loaded onto the vessel if the shipper did not provide the packed container’s verified weight prior to shipping, unless the master or the terminal can obtain the verified weight through other means". Stripped bare, this means: “No VGM, no load”, thereby leaving very little room for manoeuvre for non-compliant shippers. It should be noted here that the IMO does grant shippers a discrepancy allowance of +/- 5% between the VGM obtained by shippers and the VGM obtained when it is check-weighed at port.

For those further down the supply chain than the shipper, the new regulations may require more record taking in order to demonstrate evidence that the shipper has complied with the regulation in the first instance. There will also be an onus on vessel owners and terminals to ensure that their procedures are clear when it comes to dealing with containers which are found to be overweight, and that its terms are clearly stated in the event of any non-compliant customers.

The main UK ports have all invested in weighing technology and outlined their procedures so that each container coming into port can be check-weighed and this resulting weight compared to that declared by the shipper. Should the container be found to be discrepant by +/-5% they will charge shippers the following amount per container:

  • Southampton & London Gateway: £30/container
  • Felixstowe: £40/container
  • Liverpool Peel Ports: £20/container
  • Tilbury & Grangemouth: £11/container

For the shippers themselves, the new regulations may mean putting their hand in their pocket and investing in new weighing technologies that can aid them in making the extra checks - the worst scenario is that some shippers will see fit to pass these extra costs on to their customers.

It must be stressed that the consequences of mis-declaration can be dire. When a shipper has - purposely or inadvertently – mis-declared a container’s weight, they could be risking the livelihood of their entire vessel. Misinformation on box contents was implicated in 2015's fire on the Maersk Kampala, and another blaze on the MSC Flamina two years earlier. Under-declared container weights were also cited in the MSC Napoli's sinking back in 2007. As a whole, container weight mis-declaration can have a hugely negative effect on the ship’s stability as the stowage plan is drawn up in the belief that all declared weights are exact. Some modern container ships can hold up to 16,000 20FT containers and a discrepancy of as little as 100kg/ container could mean that the vessel is overloaded by 1,600,000 kgs, or 1,600 tonnes.

The mis-declaration issue is also costing the logistics industry an awful lot of money - at least £9.6 million between 2006 and 2011 according to TT Club, who insure over 80 per cent of maritime containers, thereby adding a financial cost to the risks mis=declaration poses for the safety of people and goods in international trade.

Container weight mis-declaration is a serious issue that must be addressed to ensure the safety of all those working in the shipping industry and Staples International welcomes the steps that are being taken, as some of the most positive developments in the industry in the past 30 years.