SOLAS: Update on Industry Response to 2016 SOLAS Revisions for Cargo Weight Verification
Getting cargo weights wrong or grossly underestimating them led to the July 2016 SOLAS revisions, requiring Verified Gross Mass certificates. Called VGM, a certificate declares that whatever is being put into a sea-bound container has been accurately weighed. Where has the slippery slope of compliance fallen—and what has the industry done in response?
What precipitated the SOLAS global agreement were horrific events like the sinking of MSC Napoli off the coast of Cornwall in 2007. Investigators found that 20% of the Napoli’s containers were up to three tons different than the manifest. Some were as much as 20 tons heavier than declared.
While the necessity of improving safety at sea was inarguable, those coming to the table to fix the problem as early as 2011 struggled with who would be responsible for the crux of the matter: owning the VGM. Indeed, whoever signs the dotted line, as defined in the agreement, is considered personally responsible.
For a brief period, the slippery slope of accountability for the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) treaty seemed like it could be headed for marine terminal operators (MTO). That decision may have literally tanked many MTOs. Ultimately, it is the shipper who signs off on VGMs. Being crystal clear as to who the shipper may be is a subject we will get to shortly.
Didn't shippers declare container weights prior SOLAS?
It was the infamous Titanic in 1914 that led to the formation of SOLAS. But the 2016 mandate has been developed and implemented by IMO, part of the United Nations and champion of SOLAS. Now, central to the mission of safety on the oceans, all containers must be weighed before being shipped, per the IMO.
Before the SOLAS legislation, shippers were noting each container’s weight on a bill of lading. Still, one-third of 130 million containers each year was determined to be over their declared weights.
The new SOLAS convention called for VGM using an approved globally adopted method. And, if VGM doesn’t show as verified by the shipper, or in shipping documents, the terminal operators cannot load the containers on a ship.
Since items in a container are commonly a mix of goods, this pushed increased responsibility on the party loading it. While some may arrive for consolidation in a manufacturer’s sealed packaging, like a television or bicycles, other containers are mixed with unfinished goods. What this means for freight forwarders will be addressed in a moment.
But one result to ease things have been more technologies that can weigh what will be shipped. The R&D and adoption of scaling systems have been applied throughout the supply chain. Forklifts, for example, may be outfitted with scales certified for accuracy that can print a VGM.
Answers to VGM, in other words, depend on who is shipping what—and in what condition—across the supply chain.
Options for container weight verification
Verification of container weights is now being achieved in one of two ways.
First, weighing the packed container using calibrated and certified equipment seems to be the most obvious and common.
The second option is to weigh all packages and cargo items, including the packing materials and tare weight of the container, then summing those weights to arrive at a verified weight. The method used, in practice, depends upon the container, such as how many parties contribute what combinations of certified and uncertified items to a container on its journey to a terminal.
The bottom line is that estimating weights—even if it seems a reputable manufacturer’s package has been mistakenly unsealed and resealed—is not permitted under the SOLAS revisions.
Who does SOLAS effect?
SOLAS revisions have had repercussions throughout the supply chain. Freight forwarders, shippers, MTOs, and vessel operators have all worked to establish policies and procedures due to the regulatory changes. Verification of weight before loading applies worldwide. The shipper holds the responsibility to verify the gross mass.
Literally, the person whose name appears on the bill of lading is treated as the shipper. That person is legally responsible for the container’s VGM.
If you are an exporter, you might hire forwarding agents to pack and weigh goods, to forward them in containers to a terminal. However, the forwarder is acting on your instructions. So, you remain responsible for certifying the VGM. How and when you manage that rests upon your shoulders.
What about transshipment?
If a container is transferred after its weight was verified, transshipment does not trigger having to re-weigh the container. During an exchange, the arriving vessel’s operator needs to advise the transshipment port of the containers having verified weights—and, of course, those containers cannot be opened before or during an exchange.
What is enforcement looking like?
Frankly, the greatest deterrent to bending or breaking the rules is cargo being left behind at the dock. So, everyone up and down the line from that moment of truth faces real or indirect pressures to make things go right.
SOLAS is enforced internationally, but there is no single, global process for weighing. Weight and measurement providers, as has been touched on, now offer equipment calibrated and certified to meet requirements in the specific nation, state or port of call of the shipper’s location.
Fines and penalties may be assessed based on the respective nation or state. The U.S. Coast Guard and similar agencies in other countries also are enforcing the SOLAS amendment. Your container missing the boat, or your boat being stopped for inspection and found to have uncertified containers—well, neither of these are risks worth any reward.
About the AuthorMore Content by Michelle Ross