New International Rule Calls for Weighing All Cargo Shipped by Ocean

February 23, 2016
By Rich Roche

Ocean container on the hook (Michelle Kelley)

On July 1 a new rule will go into effect that requires the weight of any ocean container be provided before being loaded aboard a vessel. This global mandate has been made through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) by amendment of their Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) convention. Each country will develop its own process to ensure compliance with the rule, which applies to container cargo only. In essence, the rule requires shippers, defined as those who offer cargo to be exported, to determine the Verified Gross Mass (VGM) of a container and to tender that data to the ocean terminal through a variety of means still in development. If VGM is not submitted for a container, that container will not be authorized to load until the VGM can be determined.

How is Verified Gross Mass (VGM) calculated?

Verified Gross Mass is equal to the tare weight of the empty container plus the certified weight of the cargo loaded inside. According to SOLAS, there are only two approved ways to determine VGM. No estimates are allowed.

Method 1
The container is driven to a scale or weigh bridge, where the trucker receives a scale ticket for the total gross weight. The tare weight of the chassis, the registered weight of the truck, and the total weight of fuel and driver are then deducted from this amount to calculate the VGM.

Method 2
Cargo and packaging (i.e. carton weight, pallets, etc.) are weighed by a certified scale, then that weight is multiplied by the number of like cartons in the container (repeated for each different carton size or weight). This total is then added to the tare weight of the container to calculate the VGM.

What’s the reason for the VGM rule?

The SOLAS rules are an international convention of the International Maritime Organization designed to protect and preserve Safety of Life At Sea. The first SOLAS convention was put forward in 1914, following the sinking of the Titanic, and among other things, comprised regulations to ensure adequate lifeboat capacity aboard all ships worldwide. The convention has been updated several time since.

The VGM provisions incorporated into the latest convention came as a result of several recent maritime disasters, namely the MSC Napoli and MOL Comfort. Both of these disasters were blamed on severely underreported container weights loaded aboard these vessels. In the case of the MSC Napoli, any containers not flooded by ship’s the partial sinking or thrown from the top deck by violent waves, were eventually discharged and weighed. Many were found to be overweight, some severely, which was said to be the cause of the casualty. It is only speculated that the unmanifested weights aboard the MOL Comfort were the cause of that vessel’s hull to flex in a heavy seaway until–much like a hanger bent back and forth–it eventually caused the ship to break into two. This will never be proven, however, since both halves sunk before they could be towed ashore. Following these catastrophes, vessel owners rallied at the last SOLAS convention to require enforcement of accurate container weights. As a result, the new VGM rule was born.

The requirement will be implemented for all cargo loading aboard vessels on or after July 1, 2016, in all IMO ratifying nations. While it will put additional strain on U.S. exporters shipping by ocean, the rule will be equally burdensome to U.S. importers, who must have their suppliers provide the VGM before containers can be exported from the origin country.

U.S. Coast Guard will be at the helm of enforcement

In the U.S., the Coast Guard will be the regulatory agency responsible for enforcing this rule. Speaking on behalf of the Coast Guard, Rear Admiral Paul F. Thomas, stated in an open forum in Washington DC last week that “delayed implementation is not an option” and that any container without a VGM will be declared “manifestly unsafe” and held until VGM can be determined. If no VGM is given, the container will not load aboard the vessel. According to Thomas, while the Coast Guard won’t be levying fines for non-compliant containers, the commercial penalties of missing an intended vessel, rerouting containers to a scale, and any ensuing demurrage or detention could be even more costly.

The good news is while some countries are contemplating a tolerance for slight discrepancies between actual and reported weights, the Coast Guard will be taking a different approach. While the objective is to keep ships safe, enforcement will be handled on a case–by-case basis, and may be more lenient in the absence of a published weight variance. The Coast Guard readily admits there are variances in tare weights of containers, chassis, and even the fuel level of the tractors pulling them. They are looking for best practices to be followed, where the VGM will be calculated based on the most accurate weight available.

According to the World Shipping Council, also in attendance at last week’s forum in DC, VGM updates will be allowed; agreeing with the Coast Guard that should a different weight be determined at the terminal, it could suffice as the new and updated VGM for the container. To be clear, the terminals will not be the primary source of determining VGM, since that data would come too late in the transport chain to allow ocean carriers enough time to use it when determining stow plans. Instead, the terminal VGM will be used mostly as a final check.

Mohawk offers VGM solutions

Mohawk Global Logistics has been involved in developing best practices for VGM calculation methods 1 and 2 through action committees sponsored by the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America (NCBFAA) and the Customs Electronic Systems Action Committee. In April we will moderate a panel discussion of industry experts on SOLAS at the NCBFAA’s annual conference. These steps have helped push all stakeholders towards solutions regarding the physical aspects of weighing cargo, defining the mechanics of the weighing methods, and helping guide what the final transmission of data might look like. Because this is such a sweeping change in our industry, we’ve participated in the NCBFAA committee to draft new terms and conditions for bill of lading and Customs Power of Attorney forms.

We’ve also recommended to the NCBFAA that their recently adopted Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI) form be augmented to act as a VGM document for method 2 shippers to certify weights provided, and to authorize us, as their forwarder, to transmit this data on their behalf. Alternatively, the SLI can authorize us, on behalf of our client, to weigh the container and submit the VGM under method 1. In either case, Mohawk will be updating its own SLI form to incorporate these concepts. We are also in the process of designing a web portal that will allow method 1 truckers and method 2 shippers to submit VGM data to us.

More information

International Convention for the Safety of Life At Sea (IMO)
IMO Requirement for Container Weight Verification (World Shipping Council)

Rich Roche is Vice President, International Transportation for Mohawk Global Logistics.
Click here to read more about Rich.

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