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What’s in the box?

A deadly misdeclaration

Fires start when shippers misdeclare their cargoes to save money; shipowners are under pressure to prevent them, and there may be ways to do it -- within the confines of the law.

There is no entirely safe way to carry dangerous goods (DGs) like calcium hypochlorite or ammonium nitrate. Knowing the dangers, some shipping lines will refuse to take DGs outright. But if a line is willing to carry them, it can load the boxes on the outer corners of the container stack. Should a fire start, the hot gases will vent upward and outward, and the fire will likely burn itself out. Even then, there is an element of danger, and so transporting these hazardous cargoes carries a premium.

Unfortunately, some shippers do not want to pay this premium. If a shipper’s documents have lied about — “misdeclared” – what their box contains, that container might be found not on the outer edges, the safest place for it; but in the middle. Low down in the stack; very possibly deep in the hold, surrounded on every side with more potential fuel.

A fire in a container stack can produce temperatures that can melt metal. A seafarer trying desperately to battle this blaze must be as brave as any firefighter or soldier: they risk death by flames; by inhalation of any one of dozens of toxic chemicals; or, simply by the container in front of them exploding into shards of white-hot shrapnel, like a ten-ton grenade.

When a container ship catches fire and lives are lost, a misdeclared DG container is almost always involved. No doubt shipowners would love to make a blacklist of those shippers who have misdeclared, and publicly name and shame them; but they are prevented from doing this. Lines colluding with one another to put a shipper out of business would fall foul of antitrust law in the US and Europe.

If a dishonest shipper gets a bad name with one line, then, they can easily switch to another. In fact, it is not unheard of that a line will end up carrying a container they themselves initially refused, when it is booked through a less vigilant alliance partner. Rather than colluding unlawfully, then, the industry must turn to technology to combat the problem.

The appliance of science

Many wish to see SOLAS regulation for firefighting equipment changed — hoses powerful enough to reach the top of the container stack, for example. There is also technology which reduces risk to crews; now, some hoses are powerful enough to punch through the container wall using only the force of water.

Recently, shipowners are applying technology to the problem. Certain keywords on the cargo documents can help to identify a shipment as misdeclared DG. They might lie outright; a container of coconut charcoal, misdeclared as coconut pellets, was most likely responsible for the 2019 fire on Yantian Express. Or, deceptive terminology might be used; cargoes of ammonium nitrate have been declared as “plant growth regulator” to avoid suspicion.


Instead, the maritime industry is developing AI to hunt for this type of activity. As Engineering at Sea previously reported, Hapag Lloyd joined two other shipping giants, Maersk and One, in signing up to Hazcheck Detect, one such system run by National Cargo Bureau (NCB). Hapag Lloyd is subsuming its own research into Hazcheck, hoping that a system overseen by an independent body NCB, will allow lines to collate their findings in a way that is not anti-competitive.

In due course, programs like Hazcheck , building upon their initial findings. It is hoped that the subsequent software will still be able to sniff out DG containers even if dishonest shippers change their tactics.

An unacceptable risk

Maersk Line’s data gives an idea of a scale of the problem. Hazcheck Detect screens 13 million containers for Maersk, and stops around 50 misdeclared containers being loaded onto vessels every week. Maersk is well aware of the damage a single container can cause. In 2018, a fire originating in hold 3 on board Maersk Honam claimed the lives of five seafarers. The cause was most likely the decomposition of dangerous cargo, an investigation found, inside a container way down in the stack.

On completion of the investigation at the end of 2020, Palle Laursen, Chief Technical Officer, said Maersk was “devastated… that five colleagues lost their lives and that five families lost their loved ones.”

“The magnitude and intensity of this fire made it impossible for any crew to successfully contain, making it key that we as an industry take steps to address the root cause to ensure seafarers never find themselves in a similar situation,” added Laursen.

In a 2019 article by Gard, Alf Martin Sandberg, Special Adviser to the P&I Club, stressed: “Crewmembers… are not necessarily physically and mentally fit for the task. It is extremely difficult to work in a fire with protective gear and breathing apparatus. Young people, eager to prove their worth, may try too hard.”

That seafarers face this danger should be intolerable; but thanks to DG misdeclarations, it happens far too often. Hopefully, with the application of technology, and what cross-industry collaboration is afforded within the confines of the law, shipping lines can ensure they do not have to for much longer.