Cargo integrity concerns set to take centre stage at the IMO

October 7, 2020 IMO

In a wide-ranging interview with Container News, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)’s container experts Alfredo Parroquín-Ohlson and Bingbing Song, have addressed many of the key issues arising from this year’s Cargo Integrity Campaign, ahead of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 102) meeting later this month.

The campaign has sought to shine a light on the issues that those in the industry consider to be the key safety and regulatory concerns for cargo owners, crew, ship operators and others with an interest in the safe and secure movement of cargo.

One of the most common complaints from industry is the failure of member states to implement IMO regulations uniformly, and in some cases the failure has consequences. The implementation of the Verified gross mass (VGM) rules have been beset with difficulties, given that the UK imposes a £20,000 fine for transgressions whereas the Dutch government fines for a similar transgression attracts the equivalent of a £300 pound fine.

It is a difficulty that the IMO recognises, and the organisation started mandatory member state audits in 2016, with an audit team (formed of auditors nominated by other Member States) looking into the implementation of IMO rules by another member state. All the audits are confidential, unless the audited state decides to make the review public. The audits cover responsibilities of IMO Member States under a number of IMO treaties, including SOLAS.

All member states will be audited, with new ways of working during the pandemic, the reviews look at what the member states’ responsibilities are, including the reporting requirements, how they carry out their functions.

Access to the full audit reports are limited, however, if a certain section of the IMO, the cargoes section for example, wants to see the outcome of an audit they can access that related subject and the IMO will then be able to offer support to the member state through technical co-operation.  This has led to targeted capacity building work said an IMO spokeswoman

Parroquín-Ohlson explains that there are noticeable differences in the way that rules are applied between states, but he says “It reflects on the way they apply regulations, but it’s because of the different capabilities of the countries involved, and the different capacities of countries to deal with regulations.” That could be for instance a lack of personnel or a lack of training.

Alfredo Parroquín-Ohlson says there are noticeable differences in the way that rules are applied between states.

One of the critical factors is getting new regulations translated into national law and the audits have identified a lack of maritime lawyers within the maritime transport administrations in some states to deal with that process. As a result IMO has been running seminars to address this challenge.

This has led to targeted capacity building work said an IMO spokeswoman.

Differences in the application of regulations along with the decisions of some jurisdictions, notably the US Federal Maritime Commission and European Union, to regulate regionally, has exposed the cumbersome nature of regulation at the IMO.

Song acknowledges the difficulties. “This is one of our challenges,” he said. “Regional and different regulations and the fragmentation of regulations is adding complexity and burdens on industry and everyone involved. But when it comes to cargo related regulations we have good examples regarding harmonisation.”

The shipping industry has a good record, with a lot of international regulations, the UN has an Orange Book with recommendations covered in all transport modes. IMO has taken care of maritime provisions the International Civil Aviation Organisation has covered their part for air transport. “There is already very good collaboration between the sectors.” The aim, ultimately, is the harmonisation of regulations on the movement of cargo on a multimodal modality,” said Song.

Nowhere is the need for further harmonisation of regulations more critical than in cases where safety is an issue. Harmonisation requires collaboration and both Parroquín-Ohlson and Song agree that cargo fires on board ships must be tackled as an urgent issue by the regulator.

Carriage regulations are required to help vessel operators understand what is inside a container, so that it can be handled correctly in transit, and should there be an incident on board, but also fire detection and firefighting regulations are needed to make certain that when there is a fire on a ship, the crew have the equipment to deal with it.

Three crew died on the MSC Flaminia in 2012 in another cargo fire accident. Source BSU.

Of all the issues raised on this website since February perhaps one of the most contentious has been the increase in fires on board container ships, largely due to the misdeclaration of hazardous cargo, either intentionally or through a lack of knowledge.

More cargo on larger ships built to regulations that even the regulator, the IMO, believes need updating. Parroquín-Ohlson pointed out that not all fires on board a container ships are initiated by cargo, and the cause can often be unsubstantiated.

Nevertheless, whatever ignited the blaze the issue of fighting fires on board a container vessel remains contentious. The fire safety and regulatory regime under which vessels are designed and operated is considered by some in the industry to be obsolete, given the increased size of container ships, the size of stacks and numbers of containers on board the latest ships.

It is an issue that will be raised at the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) 102 later this month, confirmed Parroquín-Ohlson, and Song also pointed out that while there was a “Compelling need to review container ship design regulations on fire protection, detection and extinction arrangements,” there had been amendments to the SOLAS Convention, the Safety Of Life At Sea regulations, and the IMO’s safety code.

Song also pointed out that one of the effects of the pandemic has been to delay the development of regulation and that MSC 102 should have taken place in the spring of 2020, even so the IMO intends to take steps to improve the regulations concerned with firefighting equipment on board the growing number of ships that are also increasing in size posing new challenges for designers and crew, not to mention those ensuring that cargo in containers is correctly declared and stowed.

According to Song, “We have received several proposals to look into the firefighting regulations and fire protection regulations,” and he went on to say, “I believe there is a general desire from the member states and from the international organisations to take further steps towards improving the current situation regarding container ship fires.”

Bingbing Song believes that tackling fires on board container ships must be a collaborative effort.

Nevertheless, Song added, “I firmly believe that, tackling the misdeclaration and non-declaration of dangerous goods and fires on board container ships must be a collaborative effort, not only regulators, but also shippers, carriers, freight forwarders and all the stakeholders in the supply chain must share the responsibility, everyone has a role to play.”

Clearly, Song is talking about prevention here and it is a refrain that will be supported by most of those in the industry, with the understanding that fighting fire on a cargo ship begins with prevention, and that means knowing what cargo you are carrying and the properties of that the cargo.

According to Song the IMO is getting “Increasing alarms alerting us to the container fires, which could lead to misdeclaration and non-declaration of dangerous goods as a major cause of shipboard fire, I cannot tell if it’s exactly, or only because of that, but more and more it is pointing in this direction,” said Song.

Knowing precisely what is in each and every container is “Very difficult to verify,” conceded Parroquín-Ohlson, given the sheer numbers of containers involved, adding that some ports use scanners, “But that’s not suitable for all ports.”

He also pointed to the random container checks, for example those carried out by South Korea which has established a special entity to perform random inspections for export containers, “The intention is to harmonise and enforce the regulations,” said Parroquín-Ohlson.

Container fires on board ships are intense and difficult for crew to handle. Source Indian Coast Guard.

IMO is open to looking for a procedure that will verify what is in a container, “We need a comprehensive revision of all the regulations to see if we can close this gap, we need a good proposal that we can analyse to see if it can work, for all member states,” explained Parroquín-Ohlson.

Song believes that to “close the gap” there is a need to make sure that cargo is properly identified and declared well before the container reaches the ship, “It cannot be left to the very last stage,” said Song.

Parroquín-Ohlson points out that the Carriage of Cargo and Containers (CCC) sub-committee at the IMO is currently carrying out a, “Comprehensive revision of all the special provisions contained in the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code to see if they can close this gap to the special provisions contained in the code to minimise the misdeclaration of dangerous goods.”

However, he emphasised, “It’s a good initiative, but we recognise that we are trying to eliminate intentional non-declaration of the cargo, you can modify the whole code but it won’t work because there is an intention behind it, to avoid hazardous cargo regulations and costs.” He added, “Misdeclaration can be a mistake, but non-declaration is a criminal act.”

Finding the non-declared, criminal cargo is a difficult problem, there are few methods of identifying these hazardous cargoes, with the very high number of containers it is difficult to inspect the containers.

Asked whether there would be a possibility of ensuring that any new regulation could be uniformly applied Parroquín-Ohlson responded that it is the intention for the regulations and the “spirit” of the rules is for them to be applied equally, across the globe.

Pointing to the application of the rules on verified gross mass (VGM) Parroquín-Ohlson says there is very little wriggle room in the regulation, “but there is no harmonised way to implement this in the member states, but the idea is to harmonise,” he said.

According to Parroquín-Ohlson the technical rule is clear and leaves very little doubt on its application, but when it comes to fines and the local application of the regulation, “it is very difficult for IMO to intervene”.

For firefighting, knowing what is in a container is clearly crucial, knowing how much a container weighs is also critical for loading patterns and the safety of crew and the vessel, not to mention the integrity of other cargoes. Collapsing container stacks are a risk to crew and the size of vessels has again come under scrutiny as stacks have become higher.

Lashing has also become an issue with crew complaining of having to lash containers on moving vessels under dangerous conditions and often these crew are untrained or relatively new to the industry.

Both Song and Parroquín-Ohlson made the distinction between lashing operations in the loading port, and reinforcement of lashing that often occurs at sea to tighten twistlocks or lashing rods to make certain that cargo is secure during transit, or the more complex manoeuvring necessary to handle heavy lashing rods during lashing or unlashing operations, on a moving vessel.

However, Parroquín-Ohlson said that, as a former seafarer he had performed lashing duties, but he emphasised that specific training would be beneficial before crew carry out these duties in port or in transit, but it is not the place for the secretariat to push the member states into a particular direction.

Song added that the issue is a critical one, it is necessary to raise awareness of the safety issues related to lashing work. He went on to say the loss of life due to the obvious dangers associated with these tasks is one of great regret, he added that the secretariat is ready to help to improve the situation and facilitate further regulatory development, depending on the wishes of the member states.

The IMO secretariat has limited remit to raise these issues without a particular proposal from a member state. It is important to appreciate further that anyone raising this issue through a proposal to the IMO must understand that this is not only a lashing issue, but also a human element issue.

Lashing issues themselves are complex due to the various jurisdictions that the regulations governing them fall under, including whether it is dockers or crew who should be handling the securing of cargo. Often these safety issues are circumvented by vessel operators by requiring crew to undertake the work before a vessel docks. In this way the vessel’s cargo operations can expedited.

That communication between vessel and port is relatively straight forward, but when it comes to communicating what is in a container, how it is stored when it is offloaded, or delivered to the port for export, the jurisdictions are clear. But the interface between port and vessel can help prevent the kind of tragedies seen in Beirut in August, where a cargo of ammonium nitrate exploded killing around 200 people and destroying a large part of the city and the city’s businesses.

IMO has non-mandatory recommendations on the handling of dangerous goods in port areas and even though these are merely recommendations, but “IMO does have a role to play to improve the implementation by the individual member states and to assist in improving the capacities of individual member states in different areas and the handling of specific dangerous goods,” said Song.

IMO is willing to help and the organisation has room to contribute, but IMO depends on the willingness of the member state to co-operate and to properly implement regulations.

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The IMO says it can help advise ports with the safe storage of dangerous cargoes, such as the 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that exploded in Beirut in August this year.


Parroquín-Ohlson also highlighted the section within the IMO recommendations on handling dangerous goods in port areas where “there is a distinction between keeping or storing dangerous cargoes, and those in transit. Cargo kept temporarily in the port area as part of the transport chain are not considered as being stored. Storage involves the holding of cargo for an indeterminate period not directly involved with the transportation process.  Authorities may wish to regulate the storage of such cargoes through other regulations unconnected with the transportation process,” he said.

The difference is not so much defined by time, said Parroquín-Ohlson, but is determined by whether there is an onward destination for the goods, he pointed out that the tragedies in both Beirut and five years ago in Tianjin, China, the cargo was not in transhipment, but was stored at the port. The existing provisions for stowage and segregation for transport should be observed for storage in port.

IMO added that over the past year there has been an increased effort to improve the contact between vessel and port operators, it is an issue that the secretary general Kitack Lim is close to, having come from the port sector himself, Lim joined IMO from Busan Port.

Lim has been liaising with the ports to develop the contact and that critical interface, and the increase in digitalisation is facilitating that change. A lot of work has already happened in this regard, including a recent webinar on the illegal trafficking of wildlife for instance.

A part of this work is related to clearance of ships and cargo. Electronic data exchange is now mandatory under IMO’s Facilitation Convention and a “single window” is recommended – so that all the stakeholders along the supply chain are seeing the same data, at the same time, transmitted through a single point of contact digitally. There have been suggestions that better communication among relevant authorities could have helped prevent the Beirut explosion.

IMO’s Facilitation Committee is considering proposals to make the single window mandatory.

Source: container-news


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