If you go to any container terminal and you know your way around, in a corner of the terminal, usually away from public view, is to be found the â€śgraveyardâ€ť. Here are found the containers that have come to grief. It will usually present a sorry sight of mangled steel and crushed cargo, to be kept while the insurance company surveyors do their work.
Many will have fallen from cranes when being handled, some dropped by ground handling equipment or toppled off trailers. Some will have been damaged on the voyage, perhaps when a stack has collapsed or when heavy green seas have boarded a ship. But most will have been victims of bad cargo loading, overloading, or some problem with the contents. Almost all of these expensive mistakes will have been preventable.
In pre-container days, a close eye was kept on the loading of ships, both by expert stevedores and by the shipsâ€™ officers themselves who ensured that the cargo was properly secured, that heavy cargo was not stowed on top of light cargo and that cargo would not shift once the ship started to move around in heavy weather. Containerisation is a wonderful time-saver in every respect, but does transfer the responsibility for stowage to whoever â€śstuffsâ€ť the container. This is probably accomplished at cargo consolidation stations, or factory premises, possibly a long distance from the port and will be undertaken by people who see just a box in front of them, with no knowledge of the accelerations of a ship in a seaway, or the importance of not exceeding maximum weights. Indeed there will be people who will consider their job done if they are able to get all the cargo into the box, and manage to shut the doors.
The importance of balancing the weights within a box so it is not heavy one end, or the need to ensure that the cargo is properly shored or lashed so that it will not start moving about once the ship starts to move, may be beyond the comprehension of the loaders. Cargo insurers can point to innumerable â€śhorror storiesâ€ť of container contents totally destroyed on the voyage, of boxes that have turned over on the trailer at the first roundabout or boxes so heavy that the corner posts have been torn out when the crane started to lift them. They will recount the carnage caused when overweight boxes collapse in the shipâ€™s stow, crushing the containers around them, breaking lashings and even causing whole stacks to fall over the side. They will recall improperly stowed containers that have caught fire or exploded, because of the ignorance or criminal negligence of the shippers. And that is before we get onto the hazards these might inflict upon the shipâ€™s crew, or the terminal operatives.
What can be done? Certainly better information, spread liberally among those who load containers, will help. Compulsory weighing is essential too, along with a more robust action against those who break the rules, impressing upon them that safety matters!