In response to safety concerns resulting from inaccurately declared container weight, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) amended in November 2014, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Chapter VI, Part A, Regulation 2, to require that packed container's gross mass be verified prior to stowage aboard a ship (SOLAS Amendment). The new rules will enter into force on July 1, 2016 on an international level and in over 170 countries including the United States. The United States Coast Guard is currently drafting a policy document that will implement the SOLAS container weight verification requirement in the United States. This policy document is expected to be published in the Federal Register in the first quarter of 2016 and will likely be subject to a public comment period. The question and answer section below provides a brief overview of the key changes/requirements in the SOLAS Amendment.
Who is responsible for weight verification?
The SOLAS Amendment provides that the "shipper" will be solely responsible for verifying the packed container's gross mass and transmitting the relevant information to the vessel-operating common carrier (VOCC) sufficiently in advance of vessel loading. The "shipper" is the party that appears in the Shipper/Consignor field on the Master Bill of Lading or an equivalent document issued by the VOCC and may be any of the following people/entities:
- The Beneficial Cargo Owner (i.e. the owner of the goods or the exporter);
- The non-vessel-operating common carrier (NVOCC); or
- Where cargo from various shippers is consolidated into a single container, the entity that consolidates the cargo (i.e. the "Master Loader").
How may a shipper weigh a container?
Shippers or third parties acting on their behalf can weigh packed containers by either (i) weighing the container after it has been packed, or (ii) adding the weight of the cargo and the container's tare weight. Importantly, however, shippers may not use the second method for certain commodities which due to the nature of the commodity cannot be weighed individually, such as scrap metal, unbagged grain and other bulk cargo. Moreover, the use of the second method may be subject to certification by the IMO Member State in which the packing and weighing took place.
What happens if the shipper's weight verification is inaccurate?
While the VOCC and terminal operator may rely on the shipper's signed weight certification, if they have reason to believe that the verified gross mass is significantly in error, they may take steps to determine the accurate weight. However, given that the shipper bears the ultimate responsibility for providing an accurate weight certification, it is likely that any costs incurred by the VOCC or terminal operator will be passed on to the shipper.
How can a shipper communicate the verified gross mass of a container?
The shipper may communicate the verified gross mass in a shipping document, preferably in electronic form. The document can be part of the shipping instructions to the carrier or a separate communication but, in either case, the document should indicate that the gross mass is a "verified gross mass." The weight certification must be signed by a person duly authorized by the shipper. The signature may be an electronic signature and may be replaced by the name in capitals of the person authorized to sign it.
Does the weight verification have to be provided to both the VOCC and the terminal facility?
No. The shipper will meet its obligations under the SOLAS rules if it submits the verified gross mass to the VOCC only. It is then the obligation of the VOCC to notify the terminal operator of the verified gross mass in a timely manner to allow for ship stowage planning. However, the shipper may also submit a weight certification to the terminal operator upon delivery of the container to the terminal facility.
How far in advance should a shipper communicate the "verified gross mass"?
While the revised SOLAS text and IMO Guidelines do not lay out specific deadlines for the shipper to furnish a weight certification, the World Shipping Council's Guidelines on the matter advise that VOCCs should provide shippers with "cut-off times" within which the VOCC must receive the required container weight certification from the shipper for ship stowage planning. We understand that these times may vary by VOCC and port.
What happens if the shipper does not provide a weight certification?
In the absence of a signed weight certification, VOCCs or port terminals can refuse to load the container or can weigh the container. However, as noted above, given that the shipper is ultimately responsible for verifying container weight, the VOCC or terminal operator may pass on any cost they may have incurred in determining the container weight to the shipper.
What if a container's weight exceeds its maximum gross mass?
If a container exceeds its maximum permitted gross mass, as provided for by the IMO's Convention for Safe Containers, it may not be loaded onto the ship.
May the shipper demand that a container be loaded if it has provided a weight certification?
No. The ship's master retains the ultimate discretion in deciding whether to load a packed container and may deny the loading of a container if he/she has doubts whether it can be safely transported, notwithstanding the communication of a weight certification by the shipper.
Venable's International Trade and Customs Group is closely monitoring implementation of the container weight verification requirements and is available to provide further information and guidance on complying with the requirements and forthcoming US Coast Guard policy.