Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Container payload scams end in sight?

Mandatory container payload weighing may be one step nearer following the recent urging of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to make weighing of all export container cargoes legally binding at all ports. Following the Dutch research institute MARIN's research project, "Lashing at Sea," the World Shipping Council (WSC) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) have urged the IMO to establish an international legal requirement for all loaded containers to be weighed before loading a vessel.

MARIN's research project found that the shipping industry's guidelines have had little discernable effect on minimising the occurrences of incorrect weight declaration. MARIN says that there have been severe cases where the total cargo weight of a ship was 10% higher than declared. Accident investigations by the UK's Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), however, suggest that the problem could be far worse.

When investigating the beaching of the container ship, MSC Napoli, in 2007, MAIB found that 20% of all on deck containers were over three tonnes heavier than their declared weights, i.e. more than 10%, and in one case it was 20 tonnes. Such discrepancy, said the MAIB report, "is widespread within the container ship industry and is due to many packers and shippers not having the facilities to weigh containers at their premises. It is also due to shippers deliberately under declaring containers' weights in order to minimise import taxes calculated on cargo weight, allow the overloading of containers, and to keep declared weights within limits imposed by road and rail transportation.

The temptations to falsify cargo declarations are high because not only do the exporters and/or container packers save money on import duties but they also swindle the container shipping lines, who lay down specific payload limits in different-sized boxes. No figures, of course, exist on this global scam but the 141 million TEUs transported by sea in 2007, or 1,272 million tonnes, suggests the scams cost billions of pounds every year. Just as serious, however, is the risk to seamen's lives, their ships and the environment. Without correct container payload declarations, port crane operators cannot stow containers correctly and so risk destabilising a ship in rough weather as well as place intolerable stresses on ships' hulls.

The risks of losses are not confined to sea, but can affect inland businesses geared to Just-in-Time deliveries. When a container crane in Southampton collapsed on a ship in 2007 it brought the Honda car plant at Swindon to a halt because car parts on board ship were delayed. Some 19 months on, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) report into that accident had still not been issued when a second container crane of the same make and design, on the same berth and subsequently altered by the same company also collapsed, with near fatal consequences. On both occasions the weather was benign, and overloaded containers were considered a possibility. Container ships have also been known to list while berthed during unloading, tipping their containers into harbours.

Clearly, the word of container packers and consignors on payload declarations which has been taken on trust for so long can no longer be trusted. Weighing must be the answer but how pervasive should that be? Kalmar, a leading port handling equipment supplier, believes that the best place for weighing to be done is where the lorries and trains have their containers transferred to a stacking area by reach stackers, RTGs and straddle carriers. Weighbridges at port entry would only cause bottlenecks and ship-to-shore cranes should be ruled out as this would be too late in the process.

Nearly all of the straddle carriers and RTGs delivered in the last seven years by Kalmar can be retrofitted with optional modules. It would then only remain to include the weighing information in the data exchange between the machine and the terminal operating software and for the TOS to compare the declared weight with the actual weight that has been recorded by the port handling equipment.

It makes sense, however, to extend the weighing function to container packers by having them fit their own forklifts or pallet trucks with weighers. A container packer being told by a port operator that his containers' payload declarations are erroneous and must be resolved by him before shipment will not endear him to his principals if his container shipment misses the boat. Such forklift and pallet-mounted scales start at £2,000 and £800 respectively in the UK.

Container packers, however, who do not wish to invest in forklift-mounted scales have an alternative in companies like Containerlift whose container-lifting vehicles can be fitted with weighers, thus avoiding the need to visit weighbridges and risking a roadside spot check.

On August 20, 2008 this writer warned in of the need to install weighers at ports and at container packing premises to combat fraud and make the seas safer. It reflects badly on the IMO that little has been done since then to eradicate this odious, callous fraud that treats seamen's lives so contemptuously. Ignoring that old Royal Navy expression, "Get your fingers out," is no longer an option, and could be equally applied to the HSE over its tardy accident investigations.
UK suppliers of forklift/pallet truck-mounted scales include: Avery Weigh-tronix, Novaweigh, Ravas UK, RDS Technology, Timotex, Weightron UK.

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