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Fire container ship

Will new guidelines provide a firebreak?

According to a recent TT Club publication, on average a container fire happens roughly every 60 days. The ramifications of a fire in a container carrying dangerous goods can obviously be very serious.

On March 6, 2018, a fire broke out in a container on board the Maersk container ship Honam. This was a brand new ultra-large carrier with the capacity to carry over 15,000 containers, though at the time of the fire it was carrying only 7,860 boxes. The incident occurred while the ship was in the Arabian Gulf, en route from Singapore to Suez.

The fire took several weeks to bring under control before the ship could finally be towed to Jebel Ali port to be unloaded. Sadly, five of the 27 crew members lost their lives and others suffered serious injuries, both physical and mental. What makes this fire more concerning is that the Honam was not an ageing vessel with an outdated fire-fighting system but a new vessel that had put to sea just over a year earlier.

It has yet to be established whether the fire, which spread through a large part of the vessel, was caused by any dangerous cargo that was on board. However, it originated in the hold at a spot directly next to the crew accommodation, and that area was used to house several consignments of dangerous cargo.

It is all the more tragic that the cargo aboard the ship had apparently all been accepted and loaded in accordance with the requirements of the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (the IMDG Code).

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has issued guidelines to regulate the transportation of a variety of dangerous cargoes, which date back to the 1960s. These include the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the first iteration of the IMDG Code. The wide-ranging guidelines encompass everything from the type of ship that can carry dangerous cargo to how pollution incidents should be handled.

In addition to the IMO guidelines, all carriers have their own in-house rules on the types of cargo that they will accept on their ships. In the past, carriers have been slow to respond and even reluctant to impose stricter compliance regimes to deal with the risks that can arise from container fires. This is in stark contrast with the speed with which they backed changes to the shipping of overweight containers, which led to an amendment to SOLAS in 2016.

In 2017 the National Cargo Bureau in the United States calculated that, of 1,721 stowage plans it inspected, roughly 20% demonstrated errors in compliance with the IMDG Code or even with the vessel’s own Document of Compliance (DOC). It would appear that stowage plans sometimes fail to comply with the current guidelines. The use of technology to scan bills of lading for keywords to indicate potentially mis-declared cargo does not appear to be working effectively enough.

Following the Honam incident, Maersk has undertaken a thorough review of over 3,000 United Nations codes for hazardous materials and has created a new set of guiding principles, in the hope that they will reduce any future risk. It has worked with a variety of industry representatives and with the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) to develop the “Risk Based Dangerous Goods Stowage” principles, which have already been implemented across its fleet of 750 ships.

Among the key points of the new principles is the creation of six different risk zones across a vessel. The principles state that any cargo that is classified as hazardous under the IMDG Code must not be stowed next to main propulsion plants or accommodation blocks, which are defined as low risk tolerance zones. Below deck and the central areas of the ship are also deemed to be low risk tolerance zones, while higher risk tolerance areas are on deck and to the bow and stern of the vessel.

Using the Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS) in conjunction with UN cargo classifications, each container can be assigned to certain risk zones and positions on a vessel. All Class 5 cargo that is resistant to fire-fighting will be banned from below-deck stowage.

Code of practice

Maersk plans to work over the coming months with ABS, Lloyd’s Register, protection and indemnity (P&I) clubs and other industry groups to produce a new code of practice that will be published and shared with the industry at large. The Risk Based Dangerous Goods Stowage principles have already been shared with the IMO and with the Danish Maritime Authority.

Another recent move has been the creation of the Container Inspection Safety Initiative by the National Cargo Bureau in New York. This free service will conduct inspections of inbound containers to the USA from ports where inspections are not undertaken. This will provide a new additional source of information that can be analysed to improve safety, with Maersk being the first participant in the scheme.

However, will any new legal regime make the shipping of cargo any safer? It will be interesting to see if these new practices will have a significant impact in reducing cargo fires and other cargo-related incidents. The blight of mis-declared cargo, either accidental or deliberate, and also declared cargo that has been incorrectly packed could continue, and could lead to dangerous cargo slipping through the net of any new regime.

Nils Haupt, senior director corporate communications at Hapag-Lloyd, said: “We actually don’t believe that stricter rules on shippers would help anything. Shippers already have to sign a legal document, the dangerous goods declaration/container packing certificate. Any shippers who deliberately do not declare relevant commodities to shipping lines will not change that behaviour just because of additional legal requirements.”

This is especially true if doing so costs the shipper more, and there is ultimately a possibility that the carrier will refuse to take the shipment. This is not to say that the changes that Maersk is seeking will not have any benefit. Any active procedure that moves risky cargo away from vital areas of a vessel and crew accommodation is to be commended.

A comparison can be drawn following a recent decision by the US Courts in the case of the MSC Flaminia, a German vessel that caught fire in 2012, with the loss of three crew members. The Courts agreed that the burden lies with shippers to properly identify dangerous goods to carriers and that it would be unreasonable to expect that a carrier “could or would undertake a research project with regard to any particular container”.

It is perhaps a grim turn of fortune that the latest fire happened on a Maersk vessel, and one of the largest container ships in the world. This makes it more likely that the changes sought with the company’s new principles will be adopted by other industry stakeholders. However, it seems that, once again, action is only being taken after a tragic event has occurred, and that lives must be lost before meaningful change is considered.

This article was first published in the November issue of Container Management magazine.

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