VGM: What is it? And How Exporters and Importers Can Accurately Confirm It

As an exporter or importer of goods, it’s essential to understand the concept of Verified Gross Mass (VGM).

Since July 2016, international law no longer permits the loading of laden containers on board a vessel unless its VGM has been supplied by shippers to carriers or to representatives from the relevant port.

If you’re looking for information on what VGM is (including how it is calculated), you’re in the right place. Below we’ll look at everything you need to know about VGM methods, what they are and how exporters or importers must comply with the relevant international regulations.

What is VGM?

Verified Gross Mass, or VGM, is the combined weight of a container, including its bracing and dunnage (i.e. the items used to strap the cargo into place while onboard) and tare weight (i.e. the weight of a container when empty).

As of July 2016, VGM must be supplied by a shipper to a carrier for their consignments intended to be shipped by sea.

This is a requirement under both the international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA)’s Marine Order 42 (Carriage, stowage and securing of cargoes and containers) 2016.

The VGM must be included in the Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI). Failure to place the correct VGM on the SLI may attract penalties pursuant to AMSA’s Marine Order.

Due in part to the escalating loss of cargo containers from 2008 to 2019, amendments were made to the SOLAS Regulations to ensure that containers were correctly stowed and secured (see Chapter VI of the Convention).

Why is VGM important?

The introduction of VGM requirements aims to tackle the prevalence of inaccurately declared containers on cargo ships, which contributed to a flurry of marine accidents in the 2010s.

Unfortunately, as outlined below, such incidents continue. AMSA has made the proper securing arrangements of cargo a prime focus and look at such arrangements very closely when inspecting vessels.

Incidents (container stack collapses) still occur regularly

Despite the increased scrutiny maritime regulators place on the securing of cargo, container stack collapses at sea are still very prevalent.

According to the World Shipping Council, over the course of twelve years, between 2008 and 2019, an average of 1382 containers were lost each year at sea. Between 2008 and 2010, the loss of containers at sea averaged at 675 containers per year, increasing to 2683 containers per year between 2011 to 2013.

Finally, between 2014 to 2016, losses averaged at 1390, with numbers decreasing drastically to 779 per year between 2017 and 2019.

The statistics do reveal a decrease in average losses of containers per year. This may be partly due to the introduction of amendments to the SOLAS Convention on July 1, 2016, as discussed above.

If a containers’ mass is not verified, and a VGM is not determined, it can result in the spatial planning of the stowage process being skewed, with heavier containers taking precedence over lighter containers, resulting in possible stack collapses.

Lashing and securing gear can only bear so much weight, and heavier containers at the top of stacks unnecessarily increases the stress experienced by these fastenings. This causes them to fail, resulting in collapsing container stacks.

The combination of loading heavier containers at the top of stacks, the variables of wind speed and wave impacts exponentially increase the likelihood of a collapse.

Below, we’ll look at some high-profile maritime and heavy vehicle incidents demonstrating the danger of improperly secured cargo (including, large insurance claims).

May 2020 – APL England

Earlier this year, we discussed the May 2020 APL England container spill, where over 50 containers fell overboard on a trip from China to Melbourne.

While the catalyst for the immediate container spill was the rough waters around the east of Australia, AMSA alleged that the spill was due to incorrect cargo loading, likely a result of an equally incorrect VGM.

This was evidenced by the presence of sub-par lashings on the vessel, a symptom of shoddy cargo loading.

This shipping disaster resulted in AMSA fining the cargo operator $22 million, a major clean-up of Sydney’s beaches, and an inspection campaign targeted at ensuring that cargo containers are being properly secured and stowed.

January 2018 – CMA CGM G. Washington

On 20 January 2018, the CMA CGM G. Washington lost 137 containers overboard in a classic example of an incorrectly loaded grouping of shipping containers.

Of the 2469 containers present on the cargo ship, 2% were more than a tonne heavier than what was previously recorded as VGM.

What made it even worse was that the vessel also used non-standard 53ft containers, incorrect stowing of containers and loose lashings.

The Marine Accident Investigation Board (MAIB) weighed 2,469 containers involved in the CMA CGM G. Washington container spill accident. They found that 65% of the containers were within 5% of the recorded weights, while 2% were over a tonne heavier than what was declared – making them outside any variance allowance.

March 2021 – Victorian Heavy Vehicle Rollover

Heavy vehicle roll over in Dandenong South, Victoria.

On the 18th of March this year a truck loaded with 26 tonnes of plywood products rolled over in Dandenong South, Victoria.

The Victorian company transporting the goods was charged with serious safety offences after the truck rolled over a pedestrian island. The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator alleges that the consignor failed to inform the overseas supplies of Australian Safety regulations.

This resulted in the consignor being charged by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator for failing in their duty of safety by exposing unloaders, drivers, and the public to the risk of serious injury or death.

Methods to confirm VGM

Cargo worker confirming cargo container information

AMSA notes that there are two methods of obtaining a VGM, including:

  • Weighing a loaded container
  • Weighing its contents, and adding that figure to the tare weight (i.e. the weight of the container when its empty).

We discuss each of these methods in detail below.

Method 1: Weighing the packed container

The first method is weighing the packed container with certified weighing equipment.

Weighing can be done a variety of ways, such as:

  • Weighbridges

You can calculate the VGM on a weighbridge by simply driving a truck with a container over the bridge.

Weighbridges are extraordinarily accurate, although they should be attended to by an accredited technician who can verify the accuracy.

  • Load Cells

A load cell is a force transducer that can convert a force into an electrical signal.

You can install load cells on a variety of pieces of equipment, such as STS (ship-to-shore) cranes, RTGs (rubber-tyredgantry cranes), and straddle carriers.

This will assist in determining VGM and is a generally accurate method.

  • Mobile Harbour Cranes

You can use mobile harbour cranes (MHCs) to determine VGM.

MHCs have weighing systems measuring either hydraulic pressure, or it can be built into the actual crane’s rope system. This method, however, is somewhat unreliable.

  • Reach Stackers

Reach stackers utilise hydraulic oil pressure in boom lift cylinders to measure weight, much like the weighing systems on mobile harbour cranes.

However, this is generally an inaccurate method of achieving a reliable VGM because it largely depends on when the reading is taken.

  • Container Handling FLT’s

Container handling forklift trucks (FLT) are also able to measure the VGM. They function by measuring hydraulic oil pressures in light cylinders.

However, once again, because the system relies on measuring hydraulic oil pressures, the method may not be entirely reliable.

A container handling forklift truck moving a cargo container onto a truck

Method 2: Weighing contents and adding to tare weight

The second method to determine VGM involves weighing all parts of the complete, packed container individually, AND then cataloguing these identified weights on the container’s CSC (Container Safety Convention) plate. You can read more about the CSC plate here.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) describes the method as follows:

The shipper (or, by arrangement of the shipper, a third party), may weigh all packages and cargo items, including the mass of pallets, dunnage and other packing and securing material to be packed in the container, and add the tare mass of the container to the sum of the single masses using a certified method.

So, to produce an accurate representation of the weight of the packed container using the second method, the following four masses must be identified:

  1. Container tare weight
  2. The product (without packaging)
  3. Primary packaging mass
  4. Mass of all other aspects of the container to be included (such as packaging, pallets, dunnage, space fillers, and material to secure the container).

You can read more about calculating the VGM on the IMO’s Guidelines Regarding the Verified Cross Mass of a Container Carrying Cargo.

Tolerance rates for VGM compliance:

It is a legal requirement for the VGM of goods to be accurate when shipping by sea freight.

It is expected that, with the correctly calibrated and certified weighing equipment, any VGM resulting from said equipment’s application meets AMSA’s requirements.

These requirements are complicated. AMSA notes that, while permitted tolerance is not specified, Marine Order 42 states the relevant accuracy requirements. The requirements that must be applied are found across an Act of Parliament, two sets of regulations and AMSA’s approved list of accuracy standards.

If a container does not meet SOLAS acceptable amount of the maximum mass, the container cannot be loaded to transport and will need to be re-packed to meet regulations.  

How ICE can help you comply with VGM requirements

Two International Cargo Express employees working together to solve customers issues

Our expert team of freight forwarders at ICE have gained decades of experience meticulously reviewing VGM processes, ensuring our customers understand their obligations when loading containers.

We have a template VGM Declaration form that you can download for free, and you will need to fill out this form for every container you decide to ship. 

Furthermore, we strongly recommend purchasing a robust marine insurance policy to ensure you are protected in light of container stack collapses. Without marine insurance, you’re at significant risk of being liable to the costs associated with certain cargo accidents.

If you have any questions about VGM methods, and what you must do to comply with SOLAS requirements, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today or leave a comment below.

Request a Free Quote or call us on 1300 227 461

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