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Shippers weigh your containers or face the consequences

31 May 2016
– 4 Minute Read

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Shipping cargo in containers revolutionized the shipping industry in the 1960’s. This is due to the fact that it is infinitely easier to transport goods packed into standard boxes than it is to move individual items of cargo which are unpacked and which may be of an awkward size.

Most of us have certainly attempted to sneak an extra kilogram into our suitcases when travelling by air and can probably understand the incentive for a shipper to overstuff or slightly under declare the weight of a container prior to it being shipped. The difference here is that, unlike most passenger air travel, shipping deals with massive volumes and weights of cargoes. An empty container itself weighs between 2,300- 3,750 kilograms and may carry up to 28,000 kilograms of cargo. An average container ship will carry about 8,000 containers while the largest vessels can carry up to 18,000 containers. Evidently if each shipper were to cache a little extra cargo into each container, this would ultimately result in thousands of additional kilograms of cargo being loaded on board a ship.

Providing the incorrect weight of a container when delivering it to the vessel for loading may have serious repercussions for a number of reasons. Firstly, a Ship’s Captain uses the “cargo manifest” which is a schedule of details (including weight) of the cargo, and which is supplied when presenting goods for shipment, to ensure that container weight is properly distributed over the ship for stability. Incorrectly declared weights in extreme circumstances may cause a ship to capsize or ground in Ports or channels, or container stacks to collapse in transit, losing boxes overboard. Other risks include overburdening port equipment or exceeding a ship or Port crane’s carrying capacity- which may be fatal to any hapless dock worker who happens to amble beneath the crane at an inopportune time.

In a rather delayed response to this long running issue, the International Maritime Organization has adopted certain amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention which deal specifically with the verification of packed container weights and which come into force in July 2016. Interestingly, the first version of SOLAS was initially adopted in 1914 as a response to the sinking of the Titanic, and in its current form is still regarded as one of the most important of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant ships. As at May 2016, SOLAS 1974 has 162 contracting States. Contracting States, of which South Africa is one, are obliged to implement SOLAS requirements nationally.

In the circumstances, when shipping a container through South African Ports, including Durban, a shipper must be able to provide the verified gross mass of the container to the carrying ship’s Captain and the Terminal representative. Importers should also take note that, while containers may be shipped from foreign ports without being first weighed in the foreign port depending on their national law, any containers which are shipped through South African ports must comply with the SOLAS container weighing requirements.

There are two weight verification methods which may be used, the first of which is basically to weigh a packed and sealed container, while the second is weighing the contents of a container and adding it to the weight of the container itself using a certified method. There are no short cuts and it is a requirement that containers must be weighed separately, i.e. 10 containers cannot be weighed together and the total collective mass then divided by 10.  Should a packed container be delivered to Port without the shipper providing the verified gross mass of the container, the container will not be loaded on board the ship. The South African Maritime Safety Authority is responsible for monitoring compliance, and shippers who do not comply may be required to pay a fine or face being prosecuted.

Transnet (acting through Transnet Port Terminals and Transnet National Ports Authority), the owner and operator of all commercial ports in South Africa, recently issued a statement advising that it will not be providing a weighing service to shippers in Port. Clearly then, shippers are on their own in ensuring that their container’s weight is properly verified prior to it being despatched to our Ports, failing which they may be penalized. Entrepreneurs around the Port in Durban may well consider investing in a weighbridge.

This article first appeared in the Shipping column in the Sunday Tribune Business Section.