Weigh them Up!
The rules and regulations set forth in the container shipping industry play a vital role in keeping ships upright and sailing smooth. Several maritime accidents resulting in loss of life and/or cargo prompted action that led to an amendment to Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention regulations. This new mandate states that shippers must provide a verified gross mass (VGM) (or a ‘verified weight’) before carriers can load a container onto a ship. The safe loading of a container ship requires knowledge of container weights; without them the vessel can become unbalanced and accidents have happened because of this negligence.
July 1st marks the beginning of the new VGM initiative, leaving many questioning how they will adopt procedures to comply with these regulations. While all parties realize the value of verified cargo weights, there is much debate over who is responsible for weighing containers. Today, carriers typically receive container weight information from shippers or their designated freight forwarders. The SOLAS amendment will demand more rigor in terms of the method by which container weights are determined as well as when container weights must be provided in the process. These questions are giving companies a chance to provide solutions for efficient VGM. They run the gambit from setting up certified weighing operations or stations, to IT companies creating software designed to speed up the flow of document transmissions and acceptance.
The noble goal of making shipping safer is at the heart of this updated regulation. Some in the industry are feeling the burden more than others though. One can argue that these checks should have been done in the past and now the rules are finally catching up. Asking shippers to weigh containers may seem easy, but this of course adds to their work load. Shippers will be required to sign and submit documents declaring the container weight is verified according to a prescribed method which are:
1) Weigh the container after it has been loaded by an approved government agency and/or facility.
2) Separately weigh the cargo and contents, and then add the total to the tare weight of the container.
It is anticipated that option two of the available methods will be the more widely used approach. How the cargo gets its verified weight is a business decision and in a sort of grey area. It is to be worked out between shippers and carriers, whether it was weighed at the point of origination, on the dock, or at some point in between.
This leaves many options open for how this weight verification is accomplished. If possible, shippers may find the option of weighing each individual item and calculating the cargo weight, along with the container tare weight, to get their verified weight the easiest way. If volume is high enough, shippers can install weigh bridges at their warehouses on site to weigh containers, but this is a costly option. Most shippers will find the traditional way of sending containers on a truck to be weighed as viable, but time-consuming. Newer options are being created as well. Companies like Conweigh have developed mobile container weight verification systems, allowing on site and on demand container weighing through the use of mobile scales.
SOLAS Container Weight information is also about moving data as well as maintaining and improving safety standards. After a container’s weight has been verified, documentation of this must make its way to the terminal or risk being turned away. This has left the door open for IT solution companies to provide solutions for the critical transmissions of documents.
Speaking with Mr. Jim Whalen, President, Asia INTTRA, he said, “While there is no specified format within the regulation in which to submit VGM, we know from experience with other shipping documents, such as bookings and shipping instructions, that digital transmission of the VGM document will be the most efficient and cost effective form of submission, as opposed to methods such as phone, fax and email.”
“Shipping lines, or carriers, need to receive the VGM from the shipper in order to include the VGM in the stowage plan and authorize a container to be loaded for sailing. Some carriers may establish a deadline for receiving VGM that may be up to 72 hours before sailing. Several carriers have said, ‘No VGM, no load.’ A few terminals may have capabilities to weigh containers on sight, but is often too late to include in the stowage plan. These multiple, repeatable transmissions all point to the necessity for every party involved to send, receive and process, using a common digital form with the fewest keystrokes and the least amount of time.”
“We see industry participants in major shipping hubs around the world becoming increasingly informed about SOLAS VGM, and taking steps to ensure observance of the regulation.” Mr. Jim Whalen
Stepping Forward, Together
There will of course be growing pains and a learning curve to implement, but the real question is, ‘Will the industry be ready for this change?’ Every part of the container shipping industry needs to be involved and aware of these upcoming changes to make sure they’re ready. Carriers need to educate themselves on the differing policies that may exist from port-to-port. What happens when cargo is refused at the port? A contingency plan needs to be in place to handle refused cargo quickly. Companies should also review their agreements with shippers to ensure that delays resulting from the refusal of unverified cargo are addressed. Delays in cargo delivery can cause a ripple effect, leading to unneeded complications down the line.
As Mr. Whalen put it, “There is a lot of work ahead, but the industry is showing positive signs by preparing well to minimize disruption. We see industry participants in major shipping hubs around the world becoming increasingly informed about SOLAS VGM, and taking steps to ensure observance of the regulation. We and our customers share the belief that the use of digital communications will be essential to a smooth transition.” The sky has yet to start falling, but D-day is fast approaching. A collaborative industry effort needs to be had for this initiative to truly succeed. Strong progress has already been made through both individual and collaborate efforts, but when show time begins, we’ll truly see if enough preparation has been done.