Mounting concerns over the recent spate of costly containership fires have prompted a renewed focus on the correct declaration and handling of dangerous goods (DG).

In March, a fire caused Grimaldi’s Grande America to sink off the coast of France, along with cargo that included a fleet of luxury cars. The incident capped off a torrid month for maritime safety, marking the fourth major vessel fire in four months.

According to maritime insurance specialist TT Club, these incidents are merely the tip of a “failing safety iceberg”, with a major fire engulfing a containership at sea on an average of once every 60 days.

The insurer says 66% of incidents related to intermodal cargo damage can be attributed to poor practice in the container packing process, including cargo securing, identification, declaration, documentation and data transfer. It calculates the cost of these claims to be over US$500 million per year.

Furthermore, cargo handling association ICHCA International calculated that of the 60 million packed containers transported every year, 10% are declared as DG. TT Club estimates that 20% of DG containers are poorly packed or incorrectly identified, meaning there are 1.3 million potentially unstable DG containers in the global supply chain each year.

TT Club is calling for greater emphasis on improving standards in DG declaration and handling via its Cargo Integrity campaign.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox, TT Club’s Risk Management Director, said there were many problem areas to address and that the campaign is seeking significant cultural and behavioural change.

He said that the greatest risk of potential disaster came from wrongly classified, labelled, packed or inaccurately identified dangerous commodities.

“Certain elements may require legislative action, enforcement and inspection and there are great challenges in the field of technological development. Above all, there is a need for all involved in the supply chain to have a realistic perception of risk and a responsible attitude towards liability,” said Storrs-Fox.

Improving cargo declaration efficiency and compliance is one way of reducing DG risk. TT Club is promoting the use of Exis Technologies’ Hazcheck Restrictions Portal – a software solution designed to identify and streamline the complexity of DG regulations and protocols imposed by carriers and ports around the world.

In addition to the tragic cost of life to seafarers already performing one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, containership fires cause significant and costly supply chain disruption.

Consider the fate of the 7500-TEU Yantian Express and the 9200-TEU APL Vancouver, both of which suffered fires in January. In both cases, the carriers declared general average (GA), the maritime law whereby all cargo owners proportionally share damage and salvage costs. Aside from the delay in receiving their undamaged cargo, shippers without insurance may also have their cargo seized and auctioned to pay for the GA.

Meanwhile, another likely consequence of the apparent uptick in containership fires is increased container inspections. For example, following the tragic fire aboard the 15,262-TEU Maersk Honam in March 2018, Maersk announced this January that it had begun a physical container inspection pilot within North America.

The carrier said the data collected by randomly inspecting import and export containers would be used to develop procedures that better ensure the accuracy of cargo descriptions provided by shippers.

Maersk said it is paying for the inspections, but added if any ‘corrective action’ is required, then the cost would be charged to the shipper or consignee. “If a container is discovered to be inadequately stuffed, lashed, and secured, or found to contain mismatching cargo compared to the given declaration, it may be necessary to take corrective actions for onward transportation.”