Industry News & Tips

Dangerous Cargo

July 18, 2007

Gene Horton



In the early afternoon of March 21, 2006, the MV Hyundai Fortune after loading cargo in Singapore and several ports in China, steadily steamed about 60 miles south of the Yemen coast on its way to the Suez Canal, then to ports in Europe. Suddenly a violent explosion below deck propelled 60 to 90 containers over the side into the sea. The blast blew out a large chunk of the hull below deck but above the waterline on the port side. Immediately below deck an intense fire roared through the entire ship and within minutes the flames ignited fireworks packed in seven containers stowed on the deck near the stern. The fast-moving fire forced the 27 crew member to leave the ship who were then rescued by a Dutch destroyer, which happened to be in the area. Two days later, firefighting tugs arrived and extinguished the fire. General average was declared and a close inspection later revealed that the blaze and explosion resulted in the loss of over 500 containers. The combined cost of the damage to the ship and the lost cargo is now estimated at nearly $300 million. Though the cause for the explosion has yet to be determined, it will most certainly involve a container or containers stowing dangerous or hazardous cargo. Unfortunately, the hazardous material may not have been identified as such by the shipper, thus it might not have been properly stored by the ship's crew.


Even with 95 percent of dangerous cargo in containers being rightfully declared each year, the five percent remaining represents more than half a million containers that are not so labelled. This mislabelling could have been the culprit in 16 major container ship casualties between 1998 and 2006 — an average of two per year. These disasters left the insurers paying losses of millions of dollars for damaged cargo and ships. A report by the International Maritime Organization of inspections carried out in seven countries in 2006, including the U.S., Italy and Korea, found of the 25,284 containers inspected, almost 8,000, or 32 percent, had some deficiency. Alarmingly, almost 1,000 of which contained hazardous cargo had no dangerous goods documentation.


Governing the transport of dangerous goods by water is the International Maritime Organization's International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code). The Code provides detailed instructions for the safe transortation of hazardous materials by vessel, protecting crew members and preventing marine pollution. Implementation of the Code is mandatory in conjunction with various governments' obligations under the Inter-national Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. The U.S. is signatory to these two conventions. Today, at least 150 countries whose combined merchant fleets account for more than 98 percent of the world's gross tonnage use the Code as a basis for regulating sea transport of hazardous materials. The Code is currently updated every two years.


Within the Code, dangerous goods are grouped into nine classes, and some classes are further subdivided to define and describe characteristics and properties of the substances, materials and articles which would fall within each class or division. The classification of the hazardous cargo is made by the shipper/consignor or by an appropriate competent authority. The classes include Explosives, (6 subdivisions); Gases (3 subdivisions); Flammable Liquids; Flammable Solids (3 subdivisions); Oxidizing Substances (2 subdivisions); Organic Peroxides; Toxic and Infectious Substances (2 subdivisions); Radioactive Material; Corrosive Substances, and Miscellaneous Dangerous Substances and Articles. The order of the classes and divisions does not denote the degree of danger. But even with the Code in effect almost universally around the world, non-compliance with identifying dangerous cargo can be from lack of experience and training, volume pressures, the complexity of the rules for different modes of transport, and the lack of effective controls and enforcement. Of further concern are the deliberate reasons for non-compliance, including cost cutting and lack of a safety culture, a desire to avoid dangerous goods surcharges and increased insurance premiums, limited sources of some products, and the necessity to ship cargoes that some lines ban. 


“Compliance means mastering a series of very complex rules for dangerous goods classification, packaging, labeling, stowage and segregation in the container and documentation”

The vast majority of shipments are properly identified by shippers, but this compliance means training personnel to enable them to master a series of very complex rules for dangerous goods classification, packaging, labelling, stowage, and segregation in the container, and documentation. "It is a time-consuming task in a fast-moving process," said Ken Burgess, director of Exis Technologies. His company has been behind the computerization of the IMDG Code. "The last check before a container goes on board is the shipping line's 'hazdesk.' Under the pressure of sailing deadlines, booking staff work through shippers' faxes, e-mails and documentation as each manifest is built, mindful that rejected shipments may involve a conversation with the commercial department." "In almost every investigation of problematic, dangerous cargo, the major source of non-compliance is shipper/packer incompetence," Burgess continued. "Enforcement is lacking. Right now, there is no 'reach' ashore to make any standard or competence mandatory for the shore-side staff who consign and pack dangerous goods in containers. That's the gaping hole in the fence and there will probably be a move to plug it soon." Labelling is not the only problem. "Incorrect packaging and, very importantly, incorrect or no segregation of incompatible chemicals within the container are a big worry," he added. Captain James McNamara, president of National Cargo Bureau Inc., noted that the shipper who declares the cargo has the responsibility to declare hazardous cargo. "The problem is that the ship's crew has no sure idea what is in the box," he said, "unless it is opened and inspected." He said one method of gaining greater control over the declaration of dangerous goods is for "insurance companies to be much more rigid and demand that a greater number of inspections be done and more thoroughly" He further urged all parties in the supply chain to understand enough about their customers' business activities to identify whether dangerous goods may be involved.