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SOLAS Update: Full Enforcement Begins

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has implemented a SOLAS Container Weight Verification Requirement amendment that requires that containers and their contents are weighed prior to loading a vessel; it’s also called the Verified Gross Mass (VGM) requirement. Before the summer, the IMO issued a memo stating that individual countries had to adopt a logical approach to enforcement. A clause noted that the initial enforcement period was in effect until October 1, 2016, after which the regulation would be in full force.

Of course, every regulation change leaves questions in its wake. Let's take a look at some common concerns as well as the reality of SOLAS now that its in effect.

What’s the initial feedback on the regulation?

Overall feedback is that the regulation has not caused any major disruption and it is applied in 95% of all cases, according the World Shipping Council. Nevertheless, there are still concerns on the accuracy of information, and also IT communication challenges are listed . Some countries, however, are late in adopting the regulation in national legislation, and enforcement policies, including random checks, still need to start in most countries.

Do existing regulations cover container weight?

Most requirements address the weight of the cargo, for example in customs declarations. What is new, however, is that the full container weight is required and this needs to be verified. Previous SOLAS regulations already addressed the importance of a container weight.

Why is verifying a total weight important?

Container stack collapses, vessel instability, injury to dock and vessel workers, damage to cargo, stress to ships and port machinery, insurance claims, added costs and significant environmental impact have added to the urgency for an accurate weight. With an estimated 10% of shipments citing an inaccurate weight according to Loadstar , the potential for an incident is substantial. As a result, the SOLAS requirement was implemented as a condition to load marine cargo into a ship.

In addition, as ocean vessels increase in size, the need for an accurate weight is intensifying due to the scale of a potential incident. In today’s modern, multimodal container ports, incorrect weights can also ripple into the rail and truck modes of transport as cargo is transferred to its final or intermediate destination.

Why can’t the industry easily comply with what seems like a simple mandate?

This is a substantial change for ocean trade. From calibration of weighing equipment, how cargo should be weighed, when weighing should occur in the supply chain, and even simple variances in humidity, a number of factors are at play. Additionally, at a practical level, although the shipper needs to use the correct tare weight of the container, not all containers have the same weight. In theory, the weight stated on the door of the container should be used; however, there is no single database that contains all tare weights, although some carriers provide information tables for their own containers.

How are individual nations and regions reacting to the update?

Some nations have issued comprehensive guidelines while others have not issued any advice or a simple analysis. In the U.S., the trend is to weigh containers at the port, as no extra requirements have been added for the existing scales by the United States Coast Guard.

What authority does the IMO have to issue a regulation?

Over 171 nations are signatories to SOLAS. In general, the SOLAS regulations are seen as global standards to regulate the safety of vessels for the benefit of all participants.

Will the industry accept each other’s communications?

To communicate VGM information to carriers, an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) message has been developed called the Verified Gross Mass (VERMAS) message. This is the preferred way of communication of many carriers, freight forwarders and shippers since this format was designed to contain all of the required information, including optional fields.

Since the regulation does call for substantial changes, many shippers and intermediaries are seeking a single source for integration, rapid deployment, standardized support, increased visibility, transparency and reuse of information.

What’s the experience of a solution provider like Descartes?

Descartes has set up the communication of EDI VERMAS messages for the VGM submission to all portals and most carriers, which is now live for multiple shippers and freight forwarders. Additional carriers are still being added. Customers can provide data in a single format from their own application, or use Descartes transportation management or forwarding software applications to add the correct data as part of the existing functionality.

Since the amendment was introduced on July 1, experience has shown that:

  • The calculation method (method 2) seems to be used by most where weight information is sent by the shipper or freight forwarder. It’s important to remember that certifications are required in certain countries to make use of this method.
  • Not all carriers or portals send back the functional acknowledgment on the VGM submission that confirms the correct processing of the data. In the meantime, a technical acknowledgment is sent by most carriers to confirm the receipt of the message.
  • Some companies have postponed the implementation of an integrated electronic solution by using a manual procedure (e.g., web site or PDF via email) to gain experience with the new process.

Let us know your thoughts on these new regulations in the comments section below.

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