SOLAS Container Weight Verification: What Shippers Need to Know Now

Container stack collapses; vessel instability; injury to dock and vessel workers; damage to cargo, ships, and port machinery; insurance claims; and significant environmental impact have added to the urgency for an accurate container weight.

As a result, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) implemented the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) requirement to verify container weight as a condition to load marine cargo into a ship. On May 23, 2016, the IMO issued memorandum MSC.1/Circ.1548 stating that countries take a “practical and pragmatic approach” to enforcing the requirement for three months after July 1, 2016 when it will go into effect. With the global export industry already teeming with analyses of the regulation, how are countries to interpret the update?

Several topics clarified

The memo has clarified a number of topics for ocean trade. For example, a Verified Gross Mass (VGM) is unlikely to be required for transshipments (the shipment of goods via an intermediate location) in transit before July 1. In addition, it reminded the industry that container weight is not the only aspect of ocean shipment safety. Stability requirements, for example, reach back to 1974, and multiple subsequent regulations and amendments remain in effect. As for the “practical and pragmatic approach” to enforcement, the notice refers to a sense of flexibility as it relates to information sharing.

Importance of July 1 and October 1 dates

The enforcement regulation is still in the hands of individual nations. Despite the call from the IMO for flexibility, many carriers and countries keep saying there will be no exceptions, even if the publication of the legislation takes place after July 1. October 1 is noted as the closure date on any flexibility that may be allowed. At that time, it can be interpreted that full enforcement will begin as specified in the original regulation. It is also important to note that if a country has not published national legislation on the subject, the SOLAS amendment is still in force.

Compliance is a significant change for ocean trade

From the calibration of weighing equipment to how cargo should be weighed, when weighing should occur in the supply chain, and even how to account for simple variances in humidity, complying with the mandate is not easy given the multitude of complex factors at play. Additionally, while shippers need 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. Some carriers may provide information tables for their own containers, but there is no single database of all tare weights.

Nations are pursuing readiness at the same level of urgency

Most nations are reacting to the update with the same level of urgency as before the memo. Some nations have issued comprehensive guidelines while others have not issued any advice or a simple analysis. Agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard have noted that existing U.S. laws are equal to the requirements under the SOLAS amendment, adding further confusion. The World Shipping Organization has been and will continue to track the progress of each nation.

VERMAS is the preferred protocol for communicating container weight

To communicate VGM information to carriers, an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) message has been developed called the Verified Gross Mass (VERMAS) message. The preferred communication protocol of many carriers, freight forwarders, and shippers, it was designed to contain all of the required information including optional fields. This methodology minimizes the impact to the existing communication of shipping instructions, and expedites the shipping instruction deadline to meet the new VGM closing of the carrier.

Technology can help centralize information management and communication

Many shippers and intermediaries are evaluating technology solutions that can help transmit required VGM data elements in the right format at the right time. The most advanced solutions provide a single source to centralize processes from VGM, shipping instructions, bookings and more, and offer a complete book-to-bill process.

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