Heavy Containers and SOLAS

If you are an international shipper and you have not heard of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) container weight mandate, you will very soon. The weight mandate simply states a shipper must certify the weight of the containers they are shipping and is slated to start July 01, 2016. Overweight containers have been an issue for years. Shippers attempting to get every penny’s worth out of their containerized shipments saw no harm in adding extra freight weight. The practice is sort of like slamming three people into the trunk of your car to sneak them into the drive in movie without having to buy tickets for them. In a shipper’s eyes why book ten containers a month when they can book nine over loaded containers?

I’m not going to preach, but I will say it’s dangerous, that’s why. There are decisions made based on the weights of containers. Vessels use weight when considering where and how to stow containers. Over weight containers present a clear threat to the safety of the crew and the vessel. At the very least even if a container is noticed as overweight, there is expense in re-stowage. Bogus weights also present a threat on the inland portion of the transport. Overweight trucks are a risk and a liability to everyone. I would go on and on about the dangers of mis-stated container weights, but I don’t have to sell the SOLAS rule, it’s already sold and is coming no matter what.

The SOLAS mandate is aimed at solving the mis-stated and overweight container problem by making shippers sign off on ‘Verify Gross Mass’ (VGM) to the terminal operators and container lines. There will be no more ‘playing stupid’ for shippers on freight weight of their shipments. According the mandate if the VGM is not verified the container will not load on the ship. Obtaining the VGM is not rocket science. Either weigh the freight, dunnage, and securing materials prior to loading and add the container tare weight which is stamped on every container or weigh the whole truck and subtract the weight of the truck, the chassis, and the fuel.

Okay, you are already a good shipper who already knows VGM and one more piece of paper is no big deal so what does all this mean to you? There is a fair chance it will mean delayed shipments due to port congestion. No matter how simple the rule will be to follow if handled on the front end by shippers, there will be plenty of unverified containers delivered to the ports. If the terminals follow the mandate the container isn’t loaded to the vessel and let the fun begin.

For every container with no VGM that is not loaded to a vessel that is one extra spot taken up at, or near, the terminal. The terminal and local structure will have to burn resources to deal with it. They can reject the container and tie up containers and chassis while shipments are rolled to later vessels or the terminals may take the liability of weighing containers with no VGM (for a price). Some ports are already busy and it does not take much to create a snowballing congestion problem.

Additionally, while the world gets used to the SOLAS weight program there may be some other adjustments for the shipping community to make. Shippers, who still deliver documentation in old school ways such as fax, may want to consider switching to EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). If the terminals wish to enforce SOLAS VGM requirements at the gate, the terminal must already know if there is a VGM for the container before it enters the port. The documentation for the container will have to come in EDI for the information to move fast enough for the terminal to have it at their finger tips. The SOLAS program may trigger terminals to accept documentation by EDI only.

The discomfort that may be felt as a result of SOLAS VGM requirements won’t last forever. The shipping community will adjust and the objective of the program is honorable. The best thing shippers can do for themselves is have their system ready to produce VGM’s well before the deadline so they can vet out the process and also plan for some freight delays in when VGM requirements start.