It seemed like a simple idea, at least in concept. Concerned with what it claimed was a rash of accidents, ship damage and even deaths, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) promulgated a requirement that shippers accurately declare the full weight of a container – both its contents and the equipment itself, constituting the verified gross mass (VGM) of a box – before it’s loaded aboard ship. The International Maritime Organization then drew up guidelines for implementing the mandate.
And so the confusion began. The World Shipping Council (WSC), which represents the liner shipping industry in dealings with global policymakers, interpreted the SOLAS rule as placing a new burden on shippers to supply the VGM, at the risk of having their containers rejected at the terminal.
Turns out, though, that various countries are interpreting the rule differently. Some have taken a strict approach, treating it as a new legal requirement falling squarely on the shoulders of shippers. But the U.S. Coast Guard sees it as shouldering shippers with no additional legal responsibility. It says they’ve essentially been in compliance with an earlier SOLAS rule for more than 21 years. Any changes wrought by the new rule amount to no more than an alteration of current “business practice,” USCG believes.
In addition, there have been questions about how shippers are expected to comply, including how the weighing is done, and by whom. (Why, for that matter, should shippers be required to inform carriers of the weight of the latter’s own equipment?)
Responding to the controversy, IMO has granted a partial three-month grace period from the original July 1 date for implementation. But it did little to clear up the confusion by urging a “practical and pragmatic” enforcement policy for the first three months.
The global transportation and logistics insurer TT Club weighed in with the observation that “there are no doubt still a number of grey areas” surrounding the SOLAS rule. It cited IMO’s recognition of “teething problems” related to documentation, communications and sharing of VGM information. And it noted that “the patchy guidance given by national authorities to assist shippers and operators in minimizing expense, delays and errors in complying with the regulation has been particularly concerning.”
It’s more than a question of putting a box on a scale. Also at issue are the timing, formatting and validation of information moving between shippers, ports, carriers and the vessel. Shippers will need to ensure the accuracy of data generated by their enterprise resource planning and other systems. Some parties might not even have the necessary I.T. tools in place.
IMO guidelines, while normally binding on industry, rely on individual countries for actual implementation. “That’s where all the problems started,” says Eric Geerts, director of product management with Descartes, the vendor of software for transportation, logistics and global trade. IMO has specified the need for a certified VGM prior to the container being loaded aboard ship, he says, with responsibility for that information falling on the shipper listed on the bill of lading. But who exactly is the shipper? In some cases, it’s the beneficial cargo owner. In others, it might be a freight forwarder or other type of third party.
IMO is offering shippers two options for complying with the SOLAS rule. They can weigh a container after it has been stuffed. Or they can weigh the contents of the box separately, then add that figure to the container’s tare weight.
It’s generally thought that shippers will favor the second option, but who exactly will do the weighing of the container is not defined. Countries differ on that point; some require that the weighing mechanism be newly certified, while the USCG says current equipment is sufficient.
A few container ports have offered to weigh the containers as a value-added service. But they, too, face the question of what constitutes acceptable equipment for that purpose. What’s more, it’s not certain that all ports have the capacity to weigh containers on behalf of shippers. “It looks to be only a good solution for part of the traffic,” says Geerts.
And where can shippers obtain a container’s tare weight? Carriers say they can use the number printed on the door, but that’s not always correct. For the shipper, getting it wrong could mean overloading the container and becoming non-compliant with the rule.
There’s no question of the need for accurate weights. WSC notes that overloaded containers, or those stowed in the wrong location, can seriously threaten the stability of the vessel. Geerts says figures provided to the carrier can have an error rate of up to 10 percent. Not surprisingly, carriers have been asking shippers for more accurate weights for “quite some time.”
So what exactly must happen by July 1? Geerts says shippers should ensure that they have the necessary arrangements in place with logistics service providers to convey weights to the carrier and terminal operator in a timely fashion. The effort of coming up with a VGM might require earlier cutoff times for tendering boxes to the carrier.
In theory, the VGM requirement takes effect on July 1, but the three-month grace period allows for the loading of non-compliant containers until October 1. After that, boxes will be rejected for failing to adhere to the rule.
Still in development is a final version of the electronic data interchange (EDI) message, known as VERMAS, for transmitting the required data. “It’s quite unbelievable that the message should go in production from July 1 when it has not reached it final stable status,” Geerts says.
He poses yet another question: If a significant portion of the containers to be loaded aboard a ship are not in compliance with the SOLAS rule, will the carrier cease loading the vessel? “It seems to me quite unlikely,” he says.
Which is no excuse for shippers not to conform to the SOLAS rule – whatever it may turn out to be.