Sunday, 27 October 2013

New container packing code enfeebled without training

A new, official code of practice for packing shipping containers should be available after next May but will it make much difference to the annual toll of carnage at sea, on roads and railways and appallingly high material losses? History suggests not unless it is combined with adequate, essential training for all operators engaged in stuffing containers.

Since 1997 there has been an ILO/IMO code of practice for packing of cargo transport units (CTUs) but, astoundingly, only about 1,000 copies were disseminated. It must come as no surprise, therefore, that despite being quoted in numerous other documents produced by relevant bodies, there was breath-taking, global ignorance of the code. An ILO research project, for example, published in 2011, found that only 15% of packers used the guidelines while most were unaware of the CTUs' packing guidelines. What little awareness prevailed was often fuzzy as packers thought they applied only to the shipping lines.

The ILO thought, therefore, that the 1997 guidelines should be updated and revised, but as a non-mandatory, though enforceable code of practice. How successful such enforcement would be is a moot point and would vary from country to country. In the UK if, following an incident, the investigation found that the container packers failed to follow the new code they would be at risk of a successful prosecution. But there is a big problem here -- the often impossible task of attributing blame to one container. The problem is less pernicious when, for example, a container lorry has overturned but even here the container may have been loaded by more than one packing firm. At sea it is a much more intractable problem. It takes just one poorly packed shipping container alongside many others to cause mayhem out of all proportion to the value of its contents. One destabilised container could take dozens more with it into Davy Jones' bosom, making it impossible to attribute blame. Some inside industry observers even suggest cynically that there is a sinister incentive for container dispatchers to be deliberately lax over sound container packing techniques. If one of their container loads is lost or damaged at sea they can claim the insurance and hopefully look forward to a replacement order.

The new code, which should be accessible online and published in at least six languages, including Mandarin Chinese, is much more comprehensive than the original guidelines, giving all supply chain partners details on their responsibilities and how to pack and secure contents, taking account of transport forces, load distribution and the CTUs' anchor and lashing point strengths. It also places a responsibility on the shipper to declare the cargo's composition correctly as well as the gross mass of the packed CTU.

So just how serious is the container packing problem and will an updated code really make much difference, especially in the light of the recent IMO watering down of the proposed amendment to Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations to make weighing of containers mandatory at all ports?* At a recent one-day London seminar hosted by the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA) it was suggested that accurate weighing of containerised cargo is only a small part of safety in the supply chain and that the way in which cargo was packed is arguably more dangerous in leading to load shifts and cargo spillages. The operative word  here is arguably because there is a clear, commercial incentive to misdeclare cargo weights in order to save on shipping costs and import duties. If a shipping line has many containers with fictional payloads declared it is impossible to distribute loads evenly without port weighing and that could lead to the entire loss of ship and cargo when rough weather hits. Even so, it is clear that poor packing is a major issue. How great is impossible to say as no reliable, global figures seemingly exist which definitely prove losses caused by lax packing, but there is plenty of unaggregated evidence.

The insurers group,  the TT Club, found that its own experience shows that 65% of all incidents involve loss or damage to cargo and of these analysis suggests over one third result from poor packing. It also found that 28% of cargoes were misdeclared . The Cargo Information Notification System's statistics found that 35% of incidents investigated were found to have been caused by poorly or incorrectly packed containers. In Britain, spot roadside checks on one day found that where vehicles were defective 49% of them related to inadequate load securing, 24% had no secured load and 15% an unstable load. On American roads, in just one year, there were 18,000 'straight line' container lorry incidents but without identifying causes.

The reasons for container packing laxity are many and no amount of beefed-up codes of practice will make a tremendous difference. For supportive evidence of that one need look no further than the SOLAS regulation 5 which covers the legal and therefore mandatory need for safe cargo securing, seemingly with inadequate effect. This is not to decry the ILO's move to improve the 1997 code but rather to explain that without other supportive issues there is unlikely to be much improvement on the tragic losses. A key supportive issue must be training, something the ICHCA conference speaker from the TT Club, Peregrine Storrs-Fox, admitted: "There is a long way to go on training." A problem here, particularly in Britain, is the lack of knowledge and experience in packing containers caused by cutbacks on logistics staff over recent years to save money who would have overseen safe packing.

The issue of warning labelling and full description of loads, especially where hazardous cargo is involved, must also be addressed in languages of load recipient countries because a big problem with containers is that they may carry almost anything, including coal and fumigated logs. Not for the first time have fumigated logs or timber overcome container dischargers when entering. At a final, end-user level, the fallout can be truly tragic. The World Health Organisation estimated that acute pesticide poisoning affects 3 million people globally, with 20,000 unintended deaths a year. Much of this can be attributed to poor storage practices and product labelling in languages not understood by its users.

If the new code of practice is to be efficacious there must be a major culture/behavioural change through education and training and in this it is hoped that the ILO will do a better job than last time at getting the message across. Supply chain partners must be prepared to incur more costs by ensuring container packers are adequately trained and even paid more because if one issue is certain it is that not any fool can stuff a container safely.
*See my report: IMO's container weighing compromise shames shipping

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