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SOLAS FAQ: Demystifying the New SOLAS Regulations

When the new SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea convention of the International Maritime Organization [IMO]) regulation goes into effect on July 1, 2016, international shippers could find themselves taking extra steps and actions to ensure that their shipments are in compliance. The new regulations are getting a lot of attention right now, but the good news is that the IMO and its constituents have published numerous documents and articles to help companies effectively navigate in the new environment.

To help demystify the new SOLAS regulations, we’ve aggregated some of the most important points in this Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). We kept the answers concise and focused on the key points that international shippers should be thinking about over the next few months. Here they are:

Q: What is SOLAS and how does it apply to shippers?

A: Initially adopted in 1914, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) specifies minimum standards for the construction, equipment, and operation of ships, compatible with their safety. According to the IMO, the purposes of the organization are “to provide machinery for cooperation among governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; and to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation, and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships.” The organization is also empowered to deal with administrative and legal matters related to these purposes.

Q: Why is 2016 such an important year for SOLAS?

A: In 2016, the SOLAS VGM (verified gross mass) rule changes to include this important point: the shipper named on the ocean bill of lading is the party that is responsible for providing the container carrier and the terminal operator with the verified gross mass (VGM) of a packed container. The verified gross mass is the gross weight of the cargo loaded inside the container, the actual tare weight of the container plus the weight of any packing or dunnage material used in securing the goods inside the container. Also, the carrier and the terminal operator must not load a packed container aboard a ship unless they have the verified gross mass for that container. In clarifying this point, SOLAS puts all of the responsibility of VGM squarely on the shoulders of the shipper—or, the legal entity or person named on the bill of lading (or sea waybill or equivalent multimodal transport document). That responsibility doesn’t go away if a shipper uses a forwarder to pack and weigh a container, forward it to the port, and even make the booking with the carrier, according to the Journal of Commerce (JOC).

Q: How is VGM calculated?

A: The rules prescribe two methods by which the shipper may obtain the verified gross mass of a packed container. Under Method 1, upon conclusion of packing and sealing a container, the shipper may weigh, or have arranged for a third party to weigh, the packed container. Under Method 2, the shipper or, by arrangement of the shipper, a third party may weigh all packages and cargo items, including the mass of pallets, dunnage, and other packing and securing material to be packed in the container, and add the tare mass of the container to the sum of the single masses of the container’s contents. Under either Method 1 or 2, the weighing equipment used must meet the applicable accuracy standards and requirements of the State in which the equipment is being used.

Q: Who is ultimately responsible for signing off on the VGM?

A: For the shipper’s VGM to be compliant with the SOLAS requirement, it must be “signed.” That means a specific person who represents the shipper must be named and identified as having verified the accuracy of the weight calculation on behalf of the shipper, according to the IMO. The document can be signed electronically and be part of the shipping instructions communicated via electronic data interchange (EDI), or contained within a separate communication including a hard copy document. In either case, the document should clearly highlight that the gross mass provided is indeed the VGM.

Q: Is there an allowable margin of error in VGM for my shipments?

A: At present, there is no provision in SOLAS for any margin of error; this is a physical weighing requirement, not a system of estimation. “Gross mass derived using compliant equipment and procedures will meet the legal requirements,” the IMO states. “Accuracy is the only concept with which the shipper need be concerned.” However, enforcement of SOLAS is left to national authorities and some national authorities have actually stated they will allow some tolerance (need to quote someone here but I know the Dutch and Japanese have come out with some numbers)

Q: What if my containers are underweight?

A: The new SOLAS requirements apply equally to both under and overweight containers.

Q: What happens if shippers don’t comply with SOLAS?

A: According to IMF, without a verified gross mass, the packed container shall not be loaded aboard ship. On a national level, fines and other penalties may potentially be imposed under national legislation. Enforcement agencies may implement measures to satisfy themselves that compliance is achieved, which might be expected to include documentation checks, auditing, or random weighing. On a commercial level, the IMF says penalties may involve repacking costs, administration fees for amending documents, demurrage charges, delayed or cancelled shipments etc. SOLAS also imposes an obligation on the carrier and the terminal operator not to load a packed container aboard ship for which no VGM has been provided or obtained. Compliance with this obligation by the carrier and terminal operator may result in commercial and operational penalties, such as delayed shipment and additional costs if the shipper has not provided the verified gross mass for the packed container.

Q: How can DB Schenker help us comply with the new SOLAS rules?

A: We’re committed to compliance and prepared to help shippers manage the new requirements of the SOLAS rules that go into effect on July 1. With decades of experience in the worldwide shipping environment, we’ll help you avoid repacking costs, administration fees for amending documents, demurrage charges, delayed or cancelled shipments, or other costs associated with non-compliance—all while keeping the world’s ocean safer for everyone.

The World Shipping Council has published a complete FAQ on SOLAS here.


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