Avoiding the Leaning Tower of Containers

By Dave Cooley,

Update: On February 11, 2016, the IMO announced that signatory nations can delay implementation by up to one year. Read more on joc.comhttp://www.joc.com/regulation-policy/transportation-regulations/international-transportation-regulations/solas-container-weight-rule-able-be-delayed_20160211.html

Around the globe, the shipping industry prepares to meet SOLAS container weight verification requirements by July 1.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted mandatory amendments in 2014 to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) to ensure the gross mass of all packed containers are verified prior to vessel stowage. The new amendment, effective July 1, 2016, is designed to better secure the safety of vessels, shipboard mariners, dockworkers, cargo, and to improve overall safety at sea.
This amendment requires the shipper of a packed container, regardless of who packed it, to provide the container’s gross verified weight to both the ocean carrier and port terminal representative prior to it being loaded onto a ship for export. The SOLAS revisions have effects through-out the supply chain, meaning that shippers, freight forwarders, vessel operators, and terminal operators will all need to establish policies and procedures to ensure the implementation of this regulatory change.


The side of a container pushed out by overweight contents. Photo by Wikipedia Commons

Who is classified as ‘the shipper’? The person or company whose name appears on the bill of lading or the transport document will be treated as the actual shipper, and they will be legally responsible for the declaration of the verified gross mass (VGM) of the loaded container. Any company that exports ships’ goods could be classed as the ‘shipper’, regardless of whether they use a third party to conduct the actual movement of goods. For example, an exporter may instruct a forwarding agent to pack and weigh the goods and to forward the container to the terminal. The forwarder is acting purely on the instructions of the exporter to undertake that work on his behalf. Therefore, the exporter is the shipper and is responsible for verifying the gross mass weight.

After July 1, 2016, loading a packed container without a verified weight will be a violation of SOLAS.
There are two permissible methods for weighing:

  • Method 1 – the shipper may weigh the packed and sealed container using calibrated and certified equipment; or,
  • Method 2 – the shipper may weigh all the cargo and contents of the container, and add those weights to the container’s tare weight as indicated on the door end of the container. The method itself needs to be certified and approved by a national regulatory body.Utilizing the second method would be inappropriate and impractical for certain types of cargo items, such as scrap metal, unbagged grain, and other bulk cargos, that do not easily lend themselves to individual weighing. Similarly, estimating the weight of a container’s content is not permitted, but individual, originally sealed packages that have the accurate mass of the content clearly and permanently marked on their surfaces do not need to be weighed again when they are packed into the container. Finally, a vessel stow plan should use verified weights for all packed containers loaded on board.

2015 Half Horz OdfjellFull guidelines are described in the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 1) Circular 1475. (Please see suggested reading at the conclusion of the article.)

Background Issues and Concerns

The issue of overweight containers has been a concern of industry, insurance companies, governments, and, from time to time, an issue of concern to the general public after incidents involving overweight boxes occurred. While there is no available data that reliably indicates how many containers are overweight, shipping lines have reported that, in severe cases, the overweight or incorrectly declared weights reach 10% of the total cargo onboard a vessel.

The problems resulting from overweight containers include the following:

  • Incorrect vessel stowage decisions; if the condition is ascertained, re-stowage of containers (and resulting delays and costs)
  • Collapsed container stacks
  • Containers lost overboard (both overweight and non-overweight containers)
  • Damage to ships
  • Stability and stress risks for ships, including impairment of vessels’ optimal trim and draft, thus reducing vessel efficiency through suboptimal fuel usage and greater vessel air emissions.
  • Risk of personal injury or death to seafarers and shoreside workers
  • Impairment of service schedule integrity
  • Supply chain service delays for shippers of properly declared containers and last minute shut-outs of confirmed, booked, and available loads when the actual weight on board exceeds what is declared, and the total cargo weight exceeds the vessel limit or port draft limit.
  • Cargo liability claims

The absence of a legal requirement that marine terminal operators perform a weighing function for all loaded (“stuffed”) containers before vessel loading, made it likely that a substantial number of containers would continue to go unweighed and that overweight containers would continue to create these issues and concerns. A proposal was put before the IMO to establish a universal international regulatory requirement that export cargo containers must be weighed prior to vessel loading, and that the actual container weights be made available to the vessel operator and used for vessel stowage planning. This recommendation was adopted by the IMO during November 2014, with an effective date of July 2016.44649 Houston Port Bureau News Ad - jjt.indd

Demonstrating that a legal requirement to weigh stuffed containers is feasible and practical, the United States, by regulation, requires the weighing of every export loaded container before vessel loading. This is codified by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that require loaded cargo containers to be weighed to obtain actual gross weight before being loaded aboard ship in Title 29, Code of Federal Regulations, Section 1917.71.

Rolling Out the Mandate
The SOLAS ruling becomes not just international law on July 1, but national law within the 170 countries and three associate members that are signatories to the IMO. Many questions remain about the process, and more information is needed from service providers such as container lines and marine terminals.

According to data collected by Joc.com, certification for 300,000 container weights will be required globally each day. Early analysis suggests ocean carriers and marine terminals will likely be strict in non-acceptance of containers without a VGM as the SOLAS rules hold them responsible for loading a container without the verification. Hapag-LloydAG, in their publication “Every Ton Counts,” specifically states that a packed container without a VGM will not be loaded.

Some marine terminals already include weighing services while others may cultivate it as a new business stream. However, this should not be counted on as a given. Maher Terminals at New York-New Jersey released a statement in December 2015 with the stipulation that “any containers or cargo that arrive at the gate without verified weigh information will be turned away.” In addition, weighing at terminals may not provide adequate time for preparing the stowage plan.2015-11-05 GT High Res Port of Galveston - Efficient Part of Your Supply Chain - Updated

For shippers not set up to weigh their cargo at their premises, compliance will require additional investment in scale equipment or contracting with a certified weighing company. Some shippers fear finding an outsourced option could be limited. “There is serious concern that there are not even enough third-party scale providers to handle this service for the heavy container volumes,” Beverly Altimore, Executive Director of the U.S. Shippers Association, told the Wall Street Journal in a December 4, 2015, article.

The roll-out of the procedures and penalties is left to individual governments and managed by the agency representing the IMO in each country – such as the Coast Guard in the U.S. or the Maritime & Coastguard Agency in the U.K. Measures could include documentation checks, auditing, or random weighing in order to assure SOLAS compliance. However, the exact timing and management of VGM requirements will vary widely from place to place. For example, as of December 2015, only three nations have made proposals for margins of error: the U.K. (5%); the Netherlands (500 kg for containers up to 10.000 kg and 5% of containers with a total weight of over 10.000 kg); and Australia, which will accept no margin of error.

contains on leaning ship

A container vessel lists with an unbalanced load. Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Central to the VGM certification is company name and signature. SOLAS mandates that the shipper communicate the VGM in a “shipping document”, signed by a person duly authorized by the shipper. It must include first and last name, not simply the company name. An electronic signature is permitted or it may be replaced by the name, in capitals, of the person authorized to sign the VGM. The signature and VGM can be a part of shipping instructions received via electronic data interchange (EDI), or as a separate declaration, including a hard copy document. However it is received, it must clearly show that the gross mass provided is the “verified gross mass.” As of yet, there is no requirement that a “weight ticket” or other supporting documentation be provided. Electronic communication may be significant in passing the signature through the supply chain. Maher Terminals has stated it will not accept containers without an electronic signature sent via EDI.

As 2016 ushers in the countdown to compliance, some stakeholders are pressing for clear guidelines from governing authorities. The Brussels-based Federation of European Private Port Operators (FEPORT) asked for implementation clarity from European national authorities. In a press release dated January 19, 2016, an organization representative stated:

“From 01 July 2016, all containers to be loaded on a vessel will need to be accompanied by a Verified Gross Mass (VGM). As of now, industry actors have released guidelines on the implementation of SOLAS requirement, but guidance from national authorities is still absent in many cases,” said Mr. Jasper Nagtegaal, Chairman of the Customs and Logistics Committee. “A lack of national guidelines will ultimately lead to confusion in implementation and will have an adverse impact on operations and lead to possible competitive distortion.”

2014 Half Whitney cropped 2In an industry already awash a sea of acronyms, VGM is sure to float to the top as the supply chain readies itself for the July 1 deadline. Despite the current uncertainties, questions will be answered and innovative solutions will arise. By this time next year, a new normal will have settled in, and, it is hoped, a safer industry along with it.

Ed. note: Judith Schultz also contributed to this article. For further information, consider the following suggested reading:


Verified Gross Mass Industry FAQs (US version), produced by TT Club, World Shipping Council, ICHCA International Limited and Global Shippers’ Forum.

  • Date February 5, 2016
  • Tags February 2016