Thursday, 17 February 2011

Containerisation's ugly side risks lives and costs billions

Global distribution costs have dramatically fallen since containerisation of shipping cargoes began in the 1950s but it has not been without a high price in risks to lives, ships, their cargoes and the environment. The causes are various, including poor training, cost cutting and, worst of all, deliberate fraud that denies governments and shipping lines billions of pounds in lost revenues every year.

After nearly 60 years of container shipping it seems incredible that there are still no mandatory instruments requiring the weighing of containers at ports, nor guarantees that all those involved in transport and handling of containers are fully informed of the state of packing, stowage, lashing and security of the cargo. Belatedly, that may start to change following the International Labour Organization's (ILO) forum, to be held in Switzerland, February 21-22, on safety in the supply chain in relation to packing of containers.

But global agreement on any issues is ponderously slow and for containerisation issues that is a tragedy, for the price of tardy deliberations will see more lives lost, injured and cargoes ruined. The public are largely unaware that container handling and transport problems are not confined to sea-borne journeys. It could be, for example, that in Britain more than 75% of lorries are not loaded safely. In 2009 officials from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and Vehicle Operator Services Agency stopped 40 vehicles during 3 days of checks in Wrexham, Birmingham and Humberside. The majority needed remedial action to make the loads safe for onward travel and unloading. The problem is exacerbated by containers because loads are hidden until opened. Over a 3-year period in Britain, 14 people were killed and over 2,000 injured by cargo falling from vehicles when they were being loaded or unloaded. On the roads fatalities also occur because poorly restrained container loads can cause multi-vehicle accidents.

Preventable losses are huge and much of it stems from inadequate training and cost cutting. In 1999 one in three shipping containers was found at fault, claimed the UK P&I Club, the world's largest marine mutual insurer. This meant one in six container journeys caused cargo damage costing owners $5 billion every year. Today that figure must be far higher.

Best practice will not defeat the unscrupulous

Much of the problem could be cut by using the right packaging and installing the loads correctly. But before any container is stuffed it should be thoroughly inspected for problem areas like holes, protruding nails, inadequate lashing points and porous rust patches, plus any residues from previous cargoes that could contaminate a new cargo. Stretch and shrink wrapping offer good protection against water and air bags can be quickly installed as alternatives to conventional shoring. These are all common sense measures and ably explained in the P&I Club's video: "If you think any fool can stuff a container think again!* but they are no protection against unscrupulous container stuffers bent on deliberately overloading their containers or falsifying cargo documents.

David Cockroft, ITF's general-secretary, said: "So far, best practice and self regulation have failed to stop the worst kind of accidents, and we are therefore recommending that international mandatory instruments be developed that guarantee that those handling and moving containers are informed of their weight, state of packing, stowage and securing, as well as their centre of gravity and whether or not any fumigants or dangerous substances are present." This clearly shows the need to make weighing of containers at embarkation ports a key mandatory requirement. Many container stuffers may overload their containers unwittingly but a scale fitted to a pallet truck and forklift would cost only £800 and £2,000 respectively so there is no excuse for feigning ignorance or relying on guesstimates. The temptation to overload deliberately, however, is huge because shippers can save so much by swindling shipping lines and governments out of billions of pounds every year.

The purpose of the ILO forum is partly to reach consensus on a common approach throughout the supply chain for the correct applications and enforcement of the appropriate standards for packing containers. Such lucubration, however, should not be an excuse for tardy deliberations, during which more lives will be lost and injured. Incorrectly stuffed and overloaded containers can sink ships. Given the size of the latest box ships being launched or considered, including 12,000 TEU vessels, the loss of just one such ship could cost over £1 billion in cargo losses alone.

It is bad enough that ships must cope with monster killer waves that could sink the largest of vessels without giving nature a helping hand through human shortcomings, deliberate or otherwise. It also reflects badly on an industry that has known of the problems for decades but only now is tardily starting to address them to remove the ugly side of the business.
*For a copy visit:

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