Share information to improve hazards handling

There is still a gap to bridge between shipping lines and ports on hazardous cargo handling
There is still a gap to bridge between shipping lines and ports on hazardous cargo handling
Handling dangerous cargoes continues to be a challenge for ports
Handling dangerous cargoes continues to be a challenge for ports

Information flow on dangerous goods needs to be seamless through the entire chain, explains Martin Rushmere

Terminal and port operations managers regularly politely decline invitations from logistics companies to discuss variations of the theme to discuss “significant enhancements to your supply chain.” The reason behind these calls is most often an attempt to get the 3PL recognised as a preferred forwarder, replacing an established company.

These fishing expeditions are one of the banes of life for management, coupled with chatter about “supply chain optimizstion”. But when dangerous goods are involved, they could be worth listening to.

All parties involved in dangerous goods handling and shipment say that the essence of a smooth operation and incident-free shipment is transparency and integrity throughout the supply chain, from the moment a commodity is first packed to its final delivery and use. “There has to be confidence in the professionalism of all parties and rigorous attention to best practices throughout,” says a port executive. He likens the linkages in the chain to the oft used management slogan of 'trust but verify'. "The port is seen as the most obvious point for blame to be placed when something goes wrong, but the mis-steps usually begin long before that," says the executive. "The Bill of Lading could be drawn up incorrectly – the port should be checking that each step listed in the various documents has been followed – even with trusted partners.”

In the end, the search is on for uniformity in handling the cargo and in the protocols. A gap still has to be bridged between shipping lines and ports in general information, transmission of data and protocols involved.  

Closing the gap

One step in closing this gap has been taken by the shipping line and industry association through CINS (the Cargo Incident Notification System). Set up in 2011 with five liner members this now has 15 of the main world carriers filing details of all types of incidents in a common database. The association has teamed up with hazardous goods information specialists Exis Technologies to help streamline and improve collection and dissemination of information. Says Patrick Hicks, CINS secretary: “The main goal is to improve awareness throughout the whole industry of what is happening and consequently to improve safety and efficiency of the logistics chain.”

Underlining the sometimes unreliable information and data links between ports and carriers is the fact that no ports as yet are members. “We are deeply aware of this,” says Mr Hicks, “and are talking to ports.”

As the accompanying pie chart shows, poor packing accounts for 40% of all incidents logged onto the database, followed by mis-declared goods. James Douglas, a director of Exis Technologies, notes that one of the reasons for misdeclared problems is deliberate deceit by shippers. “The biggest problem we see is waste batteries (which include lithium-ion). Shippers label them as something else to avoid paying the higher rates.”

Exis has developed a Hazcheck Restrictions Portal with UK P&I Club and TT Club, for participating lines to enter (or upload) and maintain the operator, vessel and port restrictions for their operations, check for dangerous goods compliance with partner lines and accept provisional bookings. A second phase has started to encourage includes ports, terminals, shippers and forwarders to provide data for free for two years.

Mr Douglas says lines and ports have not yet matched up with each other completely. The ultimate aim is to set up a database like that maintained by IATA and ICAO in aviation, “but I might be retired before this happens", he says.

Better connections

UK P&I Club echoes the call for greater information sharing throughout the industry and better linkages in the supply chain. George Devereese, senior loss prevention executive at UK P&I, says: “The good work of CINS and other such organisations in destigmatising this important issue could be furthered by more cross industry sharing of near misses." The Club has published its 600-page manual on best practices and dangers for handling virtually any type of commodity. “The release of Carefully to Carry; Book it Right, Pack it Tight and other loss prevention documentation helps the shipper be aware of what to look out for,” says Mr Devereese. “In general, there seems to be better adherence at ports on handling dangerous goods."

He says losses are generally diminishing. “There have been improvements with the re-editions of both the IMSBC and CTU codes, which look to make the handling of dangerous cargos easier, so claims should reduce if these are followed correctly. However, there is the odd large incident such as Tianjin and Ningbo.”

He adds that the Club is opposed to more regulations being introduced: “The correct regulations are in force and they should be followed. Further regulation would only serve as a deterrent.”

Mike Yarwood, claims executive at TT Club, notes that generally speaking, ports are being more careful, or are certainly more aware of the potential dangers in handling dangerous goods. "This is especially true post incident," he says. "The challenge remains for goods which are either misdeclared or incorrectly declared, insofar that the ports can only react to the information they are furnished with.

“Sharing knowledge of post incident investigations around good practice should serve to lower the propensity for the industry to suffer repeat incidents,” says Mr Harwood

“The nature of containerised cargo is that it cannot easily be viewed; there is therefore a reliance on trust and expertise to correctly classify, declare, pack and stow dangerous goods. Dangerous goods which have a propensity to react negatively to the introduction of water are a concern.”

Electronic aids

Greater reliance on electronic and digital systems is accepted as one of the main tenets in following Best Practices and avoiding accidents. Rory Tatton of Dearman Systems, based in Tucson, Arizona says that going computerised for controlling hazardous goods loading and unloading is an immense boon to efficiency and safety. “It cuts down errors such as overfilling tanks or using the wrong tank, avoids duplication and reduces confusion from different types of recording protocols.”

Dearman’s software is widely used in bulk liquid terminals and oil installations but can be adapted to various types of bulk storage, loading and unloading.

In terms of specifications, Mr Tatton advises against the system being based on the Cloud and says a dedicated server is best. The minimum hardware needed is one terrabyte hard drive and 16 megabytes of RAM. Larger sites use twin servers kept in synch. The current version is Microsoft SQL based, but in the first quarter of 2018 a beta version is being tested that will run on Linux and post-SQL programmes.

Ports are happy to follow IMO guidelines and directives, but the US adds a layer of complication through the involvement of the Federal Maritime Commission and overlapping agencies such as the Department of Transportation, some of whose agencies stray into commercial maritime territory.

A standardised set of guidelines of preparing for and dealing with incidents and general emergencies, including dangerous (hazardous) goods, is offered by the American Association of Port Authorities. Titled Emergency Preparedness and Continuity of Operations Planning, Manual for Best Practices, the guidelines were drawn up by Phyllis Saathoff, executive director at Port Freeport, Texas.

The guide strongly recommends that an emergency operations plan should be drawn up and an emergency operations centre established. Bigger ports have allocated separate offices and premises while others have devised ways to rapidly convert existing offices into emergency centres.

What can go wrong

A frightening scenario of what can happen if computer systems are not kept secure is put forward by Ken Munro, a partner at UK-based security testing firm Pen Test Partners.

In a blog, he writes that ports and vessels can be very casual about keeping up to date. “How about if a hacker manipulated the load plan to deliberately put a ship out of balance? Disguise the data, so that the loading cranes unintentionally put the heavy containers at the top and on one side? While some balancing actions are automatic, the transfer pumps may not be able to cope with a rapidly advancing, unanticipated out of balance situation.

“Chatting to colleagues who used to work on board container ships, until fairly recently floppy discs were still in use,” says Mr Munro. “One recounted a story where the loading planning desktop PC on board had failed and been replaced. Panic set in as they arrived in port and found the new laptop had no floppy drive.

“No floppy: no way to transfer the load plans between the ship and port, who only had floppy drives. No unloading, until everything was transferred by email.”

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