Data is crucial for protecting against the increasing complexity of shipping hazardous goods
As a forensic investigator and consulting scientist, I often reflect that while core chemical and physical principles have remained unchanged since the start of my career, new material challenges continue to impact the safe movement of goods by sea.
Chapter VII of the SOLAS Convention, Carriage of dangerous goods, makes mandatory the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code, which covers the carriage of hazardous goods in packaged form and is broken down into nine classes.
As a hazardous goods consultant, I advise on dangerous goods in containers but also on materials carried in containers that do not fall within the IMDG Code. At the core of this task is the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) provided by the shipper on the material to be carried. The regulations are complex and updated every two years. Some aspects need detailed consideration to determine the correct information is entered.
Material properties must be checked to ensure they have been correctly declared and the declared data is not at variance with other published sources. I also check whether the material is a mixture of hazardous and non-hazardous parts and explore what it might do in event of spillage, such as cause an accident. I do make a point of advising if a product is persistent in odour or taint which in the event of spillage could make the container useless for carrying anything else, which is very important to carriers. I also advise if there is an immediate tendency of material to cause an incident if spilt.
Given the complexity, it is perhaps unsurprising that one in four has some aspect that needs addressing; this is not necessarily misrepresentation but some aspects may not be fully evident from the paperwork.
One of the biggest issues relates to toxicity (dangers to human) and environmental toxicity (danger to the marine environment). Some data sheets say no data available which could mean data has not been found or material has not been tested. Data must be sourced or established to determine whether it merits a hazardous goods declaration.
Identifying whether a material is an environmentally hazardous substance or marine pollutant is critical, especially in cases involving spillage into seas, ports or beaches. Any substance needs to have an investigation into its properties to see how it affects marine organisms, how it affects crustacea or types of fish and how it accumulates in the environment. A common issue is to find the MSDS has no information declared on aquatic toxicity which I will then source.
There has also been an increase in electronic products enquiries, particularly the different types of batteries and hazardous goods advice. Rules around the declaration of batteries are complex and a new Class 9 label for lithium batteries has been introduced in Amendments 38-16 in the IMDG Code which came into effect on 1 January this year.
Despite the increasing complexity, carriers and shipping agents seek a prompt response to avoid any delay to vessel loading. I have access to substantial databases, and the accumulated knowledge of my colleagues which is available 24 hours a day through a global network of offices.
Those same databases prove equally essential when assisting clients whose vessels have been involved in an incident. I can also call upon the expertise of other specialist colleagues such as fire investigators, master mariners or engineers to determine the cause, remediation strategy and repair costs, or give evidence in court and arbitration.
This pool of expertise can benefit even those shippers with inhouse capabilities who may not have the indepth experience to assess contentious cargoes. So despite the variety of cargo, the increasing complexity of legislation and the demands for a swift response, the scientific approach remains as true and reliable as it has always been; checking on the chemical properties of material and how it might behave, and the physics of how it impacts on nearby things in event of a problem.
Material Safety Data Sheets are an essential part of moving goods in today’s maritime world. But they are not infallible and should not be treated as such. Checking and assessing the material declaration against known data is fundamental to protecting the safety and security of a vessel and preserving the marine environment in the event of an incident.
Daniel Sheard is partner and consulting scientist at Brookes Bell