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A burning issue: boxship fires and overweight containers

A burning issue: boxship fires and overweight containers
The question of what is in the box is a vexing one for container shipping. Modern containerships carry many, many thousands of boxes stuffed with a huge variety of cargoes. Most times the shipping line is simply reliant on the cargo being correctly declared both in terms of what it actually is and how much it weighs. Very few containers are actually checked and the very nature of large, sealed metal boxes, means the nature of the cargo is not remotely visually apparent.

The last three months have seen a series of containership fires and in one case a vessel splitting in two as well. The Eugen Maersk, Hansa Brandenberg and the Maersk Kampala all suffered container fires, while the MOL Comfort, split in two and later suffered a container fire that destroyed the remaining fore section of the vessel.

Container fires are particularly nasty and very difficult to bring under control, with extremely high temperatures reached inside the burning boxes. The latest fire involving the Maersk Kampala burned for six days before it was put out having started initially in one container in the first two rows, then spreading to a second and more beyond that.

With the fire only just extinguished it is not clear what caused the fire on the Maersk Kampala. However, in the case of the Eugen Maersk in June the Danish company reported that the cargo in the containers involved had been misdeclared as household goods.

Misdeclaring of dangerous goods by shippers, whether deliberate or through ignorance, can have extremely serious consequences with the containers being incorrectly stowed. Fortunately no one was killed or injured in the recent fires, unlike the fire on the MSC Flaminia last year where two seafarers died while fighting the blaze.

Another issue with misdeclared containers is weight. Experts we have talked to who have studied photos from the MOL Comfort splitting in two say it was likely caused by overweight containers stowed in the wrong positions. Overweight containers was one of the causes of the MSC Napoli casualty in 2007 where the vessel’s hull cracked.

Indeed yesterday a joint release by Bimco, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the International Ports and Harbours Association, and the World Shipping Council highlighted the need tackle over weight containers.

“Misdeclared container weights present safety hazards for ships, their crews, other cargo onboard, workers in the port facilities handling containers, and on roads.  Incorrectly declared weights lead to incorrect ship stowage and accidents,” they said. 

As boxships get ever bigger, and figures from insurers put that 10% of containers carried contain hazardous goods, real action is required over the misdeclaration of cargoes before an even more serious casualty and tragedy unfolds.

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