Misdeclaration of container weights has been an incessant issue for a long time now and has plagued many shipping lines, shippers, and port operators as well as inspector and customs.
The standard practice for many years has been to calculate container weights based on empty weight, measured with a scale, and then deduct the weight of the load. The container then has a net weight of zero. Of course, there are variations, and the container may not be fully laden – but, in that case the net weight would be zero.
However, due to various reasons, or lack of diligence, shippers often mis-declaring the weight, dimensions, and nature of the cargo, leading to serious potential problems. Misdeclaration includes but is not limited to incorrect/partial declaration, late declaration, alteration, or omission of such declaration.
Between 2014-2017, about 12 container cargo fire cases were reported, all of these are associated with cargo being mis-declared. Six cases involved calcium hypochlorite variously mis-declared as “organic surface”; “calcium chloride”; “disinfectant “and “whitening agent”.
On board the ship, the containers are generally stowed with the heavy containers at the bottom either on deck or under the deck of the ship, and the lighter containers on top of these containers. This is done to maintain the stability of the ship.
But better stability and less stress on the ship are not the only factors that are taken into consideration while deciding the weight of the containers to be used on board a ship. The weight of the containers also affects the speed of the ship. When a ship is loaded with low-weight containers, the speed at which the ship can move is greatly reduced.
The weight of the containers is not just the weight of the containers themselves; the weight of the container accrues to the cargo inside it. The weight of the heavy container on top affects the weight of the load placed below it. The containers can be used in a different manner to decrease the friction between containers and the ship.
Stretching, swaying and shifting of the containers due to the weight and contraction (based on temperature and speed) of the containers may damage the containers, and affect the cargo in those containers. These things lead to cracked, torn, or damaged containers.
Although a shipper can never be always 100% sure about the weight and other details of the cargo, there are ways in which one can measure it and still make sure that the weight is correct. An experienced and trained seafarer will be able to do this, as well as the person who is handling the ship from the port side.
This is also one of the major reasons why so many maritime insurance companies will not insure any cargo of a ship they have not personally inspected.
On many occasions shippers short-ship the cargo, the weight misdeclarations are one of the major reasons for such instances.
To minimize this negative effect in the cargo, the authorities impose penal charges for any violation, either for U.S. or other cargo ship owners. The penalties imposed include major penalties, heavy fines, and confiscation of the cargo. The penalties imposed on the owners can be up to 20 times the differential in actual shipping cost over declared weight, and the confiscation of the cargo is for three years for every ton of over declared weight.
The International Maritime Organization decided to implement SOLAS VI according to which we need to avoid and detect weight misdirection before the container is loaded on board.
Under the rules on the verification of gross mass of containers, which came into force in 2016, shippers must either weigh a packed container using certified equipment or weigh all the content of a container, along with the container’s tare weight, to calculate a single mass.
This VGM is then submitted for the preparation of the ship’s stowage plan.
Several other updates have been made to the regulations over the past half a decade to ensure the safety of lives at sea, especially due to the misdeclaration of weight.
Taking the case of one of the major carriers, Globally, they experience around 20% of all cargo changing dimensions from booking to loading, and 6% causing issues due to misdeclaration where it is either not safe nor operationally feasible to handle the shipment. To alleviate the issue this carrier has started to levy a new misdeclaration fee from 1st July 2020 of USD 500.
Therefore, misdeclaration of weight can result in loss of lives, property, and cargo and can entail heavy penalties on shippers. Hence, one must be very aware of following the right process of weighing as well as be diligent in the documentation and declaring the correct weight.