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On 6th March, a fire onboard the 15,000-TEU Maersk Honam container ship, which was travelling across the Arabian Sea, killed five of its 27 crew members. Over a month later, it was still burning, though the cause was never discovered.

One container ship fire happens every 60 days, according to insurance company TT Club. Until the Maersk Honam incident carriers had been slow to respond, reluctant to impose stricter compliance regimes. But now they are acting to avoid another such catastrophe.

Maersk itself has conducted an in-depth review of stowage procedures, which is where precautions have so far proved inadequate. While there are dangerous goods guidelines and scans of bills of lading, which contain consignment summaries, to identify keywords, the paperwork isn’t always up to scratch.

Intentionally misdeclared cargo can be hard to monitor, and an investigation by the National Cargo Bureau in 2017 found that 20% of the stow plans inspected revealed compliance code and documentation errors. It also found that 4% of hazardous materials were improperly secured inside containers.

Container shipping safety concerns

Maersk’s head of fleet technology, Ole Graa Jakobsen, described the Honam incident as “a wake-up call for us”. The company will now ban the stowage of dangerous goods near crew accommodation quarters and engine rooms, and the stowage of Class 5 dangerous cargoes, which aren’t easy to firefight, below deck.

Meanwhile, the National Cargo Bureau has launched the Container Inspection Safety Initiative, which provides free inspection of containers bound for the United States if they come from locations where inspections aren’t properly made. Maersk is the first company to be involved.

However, there is some pushback against the idea of stricter compliance measures.

“We actually don’t believe that stricter rules on shipping would help anything,” said Nils Haupt of Hapag-Lloyd. “Already today, shippers have to sign a legal document, the dangerous goods declaration/container packing certificate. The shipper today who deliberately doesn’t declare the respective commodities to shipping lines won’t change that behaviour just because of additional legal requirements.”


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