The carriage of dangerous goods: How to avoid disaster

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13 Jan 2017

For those frequent international travellers among us, it is now old hat to ensure that those liquid travel essentials are safely packed in ziplock bags in your carry–on luggage. While it took a bit of getting used to, the purpose behind the regulations being promulgated was a serious one: the prevention of terrorism.

Similarly, transporting cargoes whether by air or sea has its own unique set of requirements, particularly when the cargo involved is considered dangerous.

Dangerous goods are substances which can pose a threat to people and the environment. They can exist in either solid, gas or liquid form and can carry a range of dangers in a transport environment: flammability, toxicity and corrosivity being the most common. The properties of these goods determine what safety procedures need to be adopted, for example: the manner of packing, whether it can be loaded into containers with other dangerous goods and where it needs to be stored at the port or on board the vessel.

The International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG code) has been around since 1965 and has as its core the protection and safety of life at sea, the prevention of marine pollution and enabling the free movement of dangerous goods. The IMDG code is produced by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), a specialist United Nations Agency.

The key to avoiding a disaster on our roads, at sea or in the air is to follow the strictures of the IMDG code and by all means to avoid mis-declaring cargo.

An example of one type of cargo that has been causing endless hassles is calcium hypochlorite with the International Group of Protection and Indemnity Clubs reporting an increase in container fires carrying the cargo. In many cases, it is not so much the cargo itself that was the problem but the fact that it was mis-declared as a product not considered to be dangerous or having less onerous transportation rules such as calcium chloride or chlorinated lime. The International Group has now published new guidelines mandating the use of plastic drums with proper circulation of air and limits on the weights of packages and containers.

Placing the issue in perspective, calcium hypochlorite is an extremely volatile substance – storing the product incorrectly where it is exposed to heat or with other materials with which it can react will result in serious fires and explosions, placing other cargoes, the vessel and the crew in danger.

In 2002, the Hanjin Pennsylvania was damaged by an explosion and a resulting fire which, apart from causing widespread damage, also set off a cargo of fireworks. The explosion was found to have been caused by a cargo of undeclared calcium hypochlorite which had been stored in a warmer part of the ship resulting in the heating of that cargo – the fact that a cargo of fireworks was stored close by was a recipe for disaster.

In 2007 the Zim Haifa suffered a similar fate where the cargo was mis–declared as calcium chloride.

In 2010, the Charlotte Maersk caught fire while anchored off the port of Klang in Malaysia. The vessel and cargoes were severely damaged and it took a superhuman effort to contain the fire, which attained 1000◦C in some spots. In addition, hundreds of containers had to be individually opened and the fire contained. It is remarkable that the vessel was not a total loss.And the fault? A “rogue” batch of calcium hypochlorite which self–heated at a lower temperature than the norm.

More recently, the rather aptly named MSC Flamminia suffered an extensive fire in July 2012 resulting in the vessel having to be abandoned and the unfortunate deaths of two crewmen. While the cause of the fire could not be determined with absolute accuracy, there were at least two possible causes: one, the slow release over several days of flammable gases from the defective outer packaging of car care products resulting in heating of other cargoes or else the leakage of dimethylaminoethanol from its tank container. This fire brought into sharp focus the dangers of mis-declaring cargo.

Similarly, it has recently been reported that civil aviation authorities have increased efforts to prevent the mis-declaration of dangerous goods and intend imposing penalties of up to R1 million on shippers who fail to comply with the regulations. In addition, criminal action can be taken against the shipper or his agent. Part 92 of Annex 18 of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) regulations for dangerous goods declarations now provide that it is a criminal offence if a clearing and forwarding agent, or shipper, was aware that certain dangerous goods had been mis-declared.

The answer: be aware of the regulations that apply to the carriage of dangerous goods and follow them to the letter: don’t be tempted to mis-declare cargo or take short–cuts, for whatever reason.

* This article first appeared in the Sunday Tribune.

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

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