Starting July 1, 2016, shippers around the world were required to verify the weight of containers prior to the boxes being loaded onto ships. The rule is an amendment to the existing Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention and was ratified by the International Maritime Organization, an arm of the United Nations.

What is the Verified Gross Mass amendment? It’s the rule requiring shippers to verify the weight of their containers before loading. They can weigh loaded containers or weigh the contents – cargo and packing materials – then add that total to the weight of the empty container.

What’s the point of the rule? To improve safety aboard container ships through properly balanced loads. Imbalances can cause the collapse of containers, damage ships, even cause vessels to capsize. Containers without verified weight documentation are to be denied loading after July 1.

How was this handled before the new requirement? Shippers were only required to estimate the weight of the contents of their containers. They didn’t provide a total weight and didn’t include the weight of packaging materials, pallets and other materials in their estimates. Misreporting and abuse were frequent.

Why the confusion? First, there’s a practical problem – not enough scales, weigh stations and facilities near ports or at terminals to do the job and keep ocean freight moving. There’s also a timing question. How far in advance must a shipper submit data – by email, online portal or EDI – to ensure loading? The rule says only “sufficiently in advance.” Another issue is whether shippers will be required to generate separate weight verification documents or can simply add the verified weight on an existing document such as a bill of lading. Some shippers say they won’t use ports that require weight verification at the gate. That suggests they seek ports that have their own scales and allow shippers to submit documentation close to loading times.

Anything else? Nobody wants to pay for weight verification and extra documentation. Carriers and ports resist the notion they should pay. Shippers will want consolidators and forwarders to absorb the cost. Consolidators and forwarders will want to charge VGM fees. It’s also unclear what happens if there are violations. Enforcement, penalties and liability for all the various parties – carriers, shippers, forwarders, Non-Vessel Operators, consolidators, weigh stations, port operators, terminals – is murky at best.

Imbalances can cause the collapse of containers, damage ships, even cause vessels to capsize.