ContainersPorts and Logistics

Terminal operators allowing shippers to get away with murder

Shippers continue to put lives at risk by flouting cargo regulations. And they’ll carry on getting away with it as competition among terminals for business is so fierce that blind eyes are turned on a daily basis to boxes that could kill.

A quick glance at our partner MarineTraffic’s site shows the severity of shippers failing to follow guidelines correctly. Remember the MSC Daniela? The 13,800 teu boxship suffered a fire on April 4 this year in its aft section off Sri Lanka. The ship continued to smoulder for weeks after the blaze was extinguished. MSC suspects shippers misdeclaring hazardous cargoes was the most likely reason for the blaze.

The ship was eventually able to make its own way to Shanghai, arriving on May 22, for what officials at the time said would be a fortnight’s repair work. As of today, MarineTraffic clearly shows this huge boxship still moored at China Shipping Industry’s Changxing yard.

The fire – caused most likely either by a non-declaration of IMDG cargo, or poor stowage of the same by the shipper – ripped through up to eight bays of the ship. All lashing platforms would have become distorted and now brittle, and will need replacement. New hatch covers will need to be fabricated. Cells guides might also need some attention, at least the opening flange part. Any electrics will have also burned out, so maybe a massive re-wiring is also required. Then a spot of painting and finally new sea-trials might also be required.

At least no one died in this accident.

The same type of unprofessional behavior by shippers was also likely the cause of the Tianjin port explosion two years ago, an inferno that killed 173 people and racked up damages in excess of $4bn.

I was chatting with a terminal operator today who described his week’s current travails. Operations had to be stopped on one ship on Monday as a hazardous container did not have labels. This container had loaded in another overseas port, been feedered, landed at a terminal nearby, stored, trucked through the port, entered the operator’s terminal, stored again and then loaded before anyone realised.

Tuesday saw the same hassled operator struggling with five feu which were loaded beyond their maximum payload, and whereas seemingly VGM compliant, needed to be lightered before shipment.

That same day he had to put up with customer sending a bayplan over, then asking my source to manually update 155 containers as IMDG hazardous.

“This is just a snippet of safety violations experienced this week, and we still have three days to go to complete the week,” my frustrated source confided.

There is little in terms of process efficiency or compliance within our industry, and we are very lucky that we only get a few cases such as the MSC Daniela.

The root of the problem lies with commercial competition. Terminal operators are unlikely to take a strong stance on non-compliance, as competitors hover nearby willing to take anything that comes their way.

Occasionally I get the odd greenwashing release from the world’s largest terminal operators, talking about what they are doing to save the environment together. It would be nice to see them come together with a collective stance on safety.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. Sad but not surprised about your well written findings! I been running a basic repeated annually, IMDG course in Asia for some years now to give shippers, importers, exporters and other involved interests a better understanding about risk and its consequences. Will be in various Asian countries again in November to do the same and this time also engineering, maintenance and design. Why? Because we can only change things by changing understanding levels. It is slow and takes time but each time 1 person with a saying somewhere learn something new and better it will create hope for something better somewhere and hopefully 1 less dangerous operation, container or cargo? I find by observed fact that people just do not understand properly risk and its consequences. Everyone I meet tend to claim that they know! but, any fool can know without any understanding. We just need to create harder, faster and direct consequences for people involved each time it can be ascertained that decisions and orders are risking life, environment and assets for a few hundred dollars or just by the unsafe knowing without understanding. There is no point in penalizing the hard working people for being forced to turn a blind eye and hoping nothing will happen. We all know where things are coming from. Leadership and directly liable as the master onboard would change a lot of things globally! Wishing all hardworking people, operators and crew a safe and mindful day.

  2. Good article. A couple of points:

    As a ship operator, it is quite difficult to get information about a “suspect” container in a short enough time scale to be helpful in firefighting etc. – particularly if it is a cross slot charter box. The information needs to be available to the ship in a couple of minutes which means there should be no manual data inputting. This assumes that the information the carrier has on file is true, of course…

    I don’t think the terminal operators see themselves as being paid to be the ship operators’ “gatekeepers”.

  3. Nice article throwing light on terminal’s role for cargo safety. Most terminals accept all dangerous goods boxes without any additional check as it is considered carriers have already scrutinized. Understanding of IMDG Code is vital to safety and each party involved must know in depth regarding the function they perform. Less knowledge is also dangerous. One of the terminal in India insist the shipper to affix class 4.3 placard with figure “4.3” in the bottom corner against “4” required by IMDG Code. Shipper even showed the page of IMDG Code, terminal refused the box forcing the shipper to affix placard with 4.3 which subsequently got penalized in European discharge port.

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