The Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Container Weight Verification Requirement: An Update

smitty-colinBy Chris Smith and Colin McRae

Special to the SMN Maritime Magazine

Implementation of the recent SOLAS regulations regarding Verified Gross Mass (VGM) has been a weighty issue for the maritime industry. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is an international maritime safety treaty whose goal is to ensure that ships under the flags of signatory states comply with minimum safety standards. In 2011, work started at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on the development of standards to prevent marine casualties and incidents caused by misdeclared container mass. These efforts culminated in the amendment of the SOLAS regulations to require the verification of the gross mass of packed containers, which became effective on July 1, 2016.

The regulation places the requirement on the shipper of a packed container (as defined on the shipping documents) to determine and provide the VGM. Two methods were permitted by the amendment: (1) weighing the cargo and contents of the container and then adding that weight to the container’s tare weight, or (2) weighing the entire container after it is packed with the cargo. OCEMA (Ocean Carrier Equipment Management Association) published its best practice recommendations for SOLAS, detailing responsibilities of the Shipper, Ocean Carrier, Marine Terminal Operator, and the Vessel Operator, including how the VGM was to be provided to the Ocean Carrier. However, the question still remained: how and where would the containers be weighed?

The IMO has stressed that nothing in the SOLAS regulations limits the principle that an oceangoing vessel’s master retains ultimate discretion in deciding whether to accept a packed container for loading onto his ship. To facilitate the continued efficient movement of containers, the master or the terminal representative may obtain the VGM of the packed container on the shipper’s behalf. However, the IMO leaves the questions of who should weigh the containers, where they should be weighed, and who should bear the costs up to the agreement of the commercial parties.

As late as March 2016, countries around the globe struggled to implement the guidelines. The IMO has since relaxed its stance, creating a three-month period after the July 1, 2016 start date during which regulators were instructed to take a “practical and pragmatic approach” when enforcing the new guidelines. With 162 nations trying to come up to speed, this was a much needed grace period.

The new guidelines raise other practical issues for those in the industry, including liability for incorrectly weighing the containers or failing to provide a VGM. Shippers, 3PLs, and freight forwarders should take care to allocate risk between themselves in their contracts. A number of shippers and transportation companies have addressed this concern by drafting their service agreements and other contracts with indemnity language tailored to the new SOLAS guidelines.

Fortunately for the companies that ship out of the Port of Savannah, the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) has ensured ongoing efficiency by providing weighing services at no charge. OCEMA and the US Coast Guard have agreed to accept GPA weights as VGM equivalent.

As GPA Client Relations Center General Manager Gordon Hammer put it at the recent Savannah Logistics Lunch, the SOLAS amendment “was like Y2K”—a great deal of anticipatory concern, but in Savannah at least, smooth sailing.