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Global Supply Chain News: Spate of Recent Cargo Ship Fires has Industry Worried


Misdeclaration and Poor Packing Could be Key Fires Causes, but what to Do?

March 26, 2019
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Just shy of a year ago, SCDigest reported on a bad month for container shipping giant Maersk Line, which saw two of its ships catch fire in the month of March – including one blaze that left five dead.

The Maersk Honam was in route from Singapore to the Suez Canal when a fire broke out in its cargo hull some 1,000 miles off the Oman coast.

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Most container ship fires start in the cargo area, rather than engine room.

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Maersk said 23 crew members were evacuated to a nearby vessel named ALS Ceres after sending a distress signal when they could not extinguished the fire.

Those fires, it turns out, appear to be part of a worrisome trend.

On March 10, a ship owned by carrier Grimaldi Lines that was hauling both containers and automobiles also caught fire off the coast of France. The 27 crew members had to be rescued by a British Navy ship.

But some 2000 luxury cars, mostly Audi and Porsche models, were lost, according to a report this week in the Wall Street Journal.

That makes it fourth major ship fire in the past four months, following the two Maersk fires and several others in the sector in 2019.

A strange coincidence – or something more?

"It was a wake-up call," Maersk executive Ole Graa Jakobsen said of the Honam fire, the cause of which is still undetermined.

Since then, Maersk stopped stowing perceived dangerous cargo below deck, as well as with other goods considered resistant to fire fighting.

The Journal reports that "Ship operators, insurers and regulators increasingly are focusing on the chemicals, batteries and other goods that can trigger or feed a fire."

It turns out the cause of ship fires is often very difficult to identify, adding to the challenge.

That said, insurance company TT Club, which is a major player in the logistics sector, estimates that some two-thirds of all incidents are the result of "poor practice in the overall packing process" of dangerous goods, which are often misidentified or undeclared.

(See More Below)





Ocean cargo is packed into containers before it reaches the shipowner or carrier, both of which are generally totally reliant on the shipper's declaration regarding the container's contents.

Most container ship fires start in the cargo area, rather than engine room, and many occur as a result of the mis-declaration or inadequate packing of hazardous goods.

It of course can also be difficult for crew to contain a fire which starts in one of several thousand containers in a vessel's cargo hold. However, the fire on the Grimaldi Lines is believed to have started on the deck and then swiftly moved the vehicles on the ship.

The Journal reports that TT Club says there is a fire at sea every 60 days on average, and that overall ocean shipping insurance claims are in excess of $500 million annually. It also estimates about six million containers, or 10% of the overall TEU moved across the seas, contain dangerous goods, and that nearly 1.3 million of those container are not properly packed or are incorrectly identified.

The National Cargo Bureau, which assists the US Coast Guard to enforce safe navigation rules, says 4% of 31,000 boxes it checked in 2017 contained dangerous cargo that wasn't properly secured. Even 4% of tens of millions of containers adds up to many dangerous potential fire sources on ocean ships.

The recent new generation of megaships, carrying 18,000 TEU or more, just add to the problem in terms of just the sheet scale of container management – and getting to fires once they begin.

Some officials involved in ocean shipping say shippers who circumvent dangerous-goods rules with false declarations should face criminal penalties.

Whether there should also be stiff penalties for container packing that doesn't meet standards is another question.

Writing a guest column for Seatrade Maritime News, Carol Holness, a senior associate, at Norton Rose Fulbright of South Africa, notes that "Where the fire is caused by a mis-declaration of hazardous cargo, the shipowner and cargo owners may have a claim against the owner of the guilty cargo."

However, she adds, "In practice, such claims are often worthless as parties who mis-declare cargo often do so to obtain lower freight rates and will disappear overnight when a major fire occurs."

Whether the fires will stop for a while and this issue is somewhat forgotten r will see still more fires that force the industry to act will be a very interesting question indeed.

Do you think fires on container ships is a growing issue? What should be done? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


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