Container weight declarations – SOLAS Amendments
Traders, exporters and forwarders will be aware of the important amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention which are, as of 1 July 2016, now in force.
The amended rules require that before a packed container can be loaded on board a ship the carrier must receive the shipper’s declaration of its verified gross mass (VGM) confirming the weight of the container plus contents.
Incorrectly declaring container weights can result in damage to cargo, property and equipment in addition to personal injury, during loading, unloading and transit. A failure to accurately declare can also be a significant risk to the stability of the vessel.
The amendments are of relevance to the wider supply chain. Forwarders, shippers, carriers and port terminals in particular have all been engaged in a process of reviewing procedures, updating working practices and revising applicable contractual terms in advance of the changes.
The shipper (ie the exporter of the goods or the freight forwarder) is obliged to issue and provide to the carrier the VGM certification.
There are two ways of assessing the weight of the container. Method 1 is to weigh the packed container on a calibrated, certified weighbridge. Method 2 is to add the accurate empty container weight (obtained from the container owner or carrier) to the weight of the cargo to be loaded. The IMO has issued guidance for the industry and recommend that bulk cargo should not be loaded using the second method (this would include unbagged grain or liquid cargo). Clearly, a degree of co-operation is required from all involved to avoid errors, delays and subsequent further costs.
If the required certificate is not provided, or if the carrier has reason to believe that the certified VGM is incorrect, the carrier may weigh the container before accepting it for carriage alternatively may decline to load the container. This will clearly lead to further delay and cost.
The Global Shippers Forum has raised concerns that the new rules are already being exploited by carriers who are levying administration charges purportedly to cover alleged increased handling or processing costs. The rules do not deal with what happens if the shipper fails to verify the weight or who is responsible for a container delayed or left at the port.
Flat rate administrative fees would appear to be exploiting the new rules. However, given the disruption for carriers caused by incorrect or total failure of shippers to verify container weights, particularly in relation to very late amendments required to stowage or storage plans as a result, it is hardly surprising that extra charges may have to be levied. Forwarders will need to ensure that customers are aware of these issues in advance to avoid issues in the wider supply chain.
Although the primary obligation to provide accurate VGM certification rests with the shipper the various consequences which potentially arise when things go wrong have implications for the wider supply chain. The Convention does not allocate responsibility in these circumstances and accordingly it is important that applicable contracts are drafted to cover such situations.