Sea transport of dangerous goods – keeping things safe

Transporting dangerous goods on ships is an everyday occurrence – and indispensable for businesses and consumers. In fact, one out of every 10 containers carried on board today contains hazardous cargo. These include consumer products – such as paints, varnishes and lighters – but also products like spray cream. Strict requirements for all ocean-going vessels worldwide ensure that the risks involved in transporting dangerous goods are minimised. Among other things, these include precise specifications for the shipper of the cargo, who is responsible for ensuring that the cargo is safely stowed inside the container. It is prohibited to transport dangerous goods that cannot be conveyed safely. 

Global sets of rules for transporting dangerous goods by sea

The basic regulations for the maritime transport of dangerous goods are contained in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG Code). These rules are supplemented by national regulations, such as ones regarding special safety precautions, the responsibilities of government agencies, and the ways in which violations of these regulations are handled. In Germany, this is regulated by the Ordinance on the Transport of Dangerous Goods by Sea (GGVSee).

Worldwide identification numbers of the United Nations (UN numbers) describe each substance that may pose a hazard. Moreover, the IMDG Code contains important information on these substances, such as additional hazards, stowage regulations, and technical and medical measures to be taken in the event of an emergency.

Safe transport starts with the shipper

The most important prerequisite for making maritime transport as safe as possible is for shippers of dangerous goods to already fulfil certain requirements. They must assign to the cargo one of the nine dangerous goods classes of the IMDG Code (depending on the nature of the danger it presents), declare it correctly, and pack it safely. In addition, they must properly pass on this information to all parties along the transport chain.

Symbols placed on the outside of the container are used to indicate the type(s) of dangerous goods inside it. Furthermore, the shipper must also prepare a transport document containing all the essential information on the dangerous goods in question in accordance with the IMDG Code. Such information includes the UN number, the dangerous goods class, specifications regarding stowage and separation (“segregation”) from other dangerous goods, and special requirements for transport.

When booking a shipment by sea, the shipper transmits this data to the shipping company, which in turn passes it on to the vessels as part of a dangerous goods list including all the necessary details. If a shipping company has chartered out its vessel, the charterer is responsible for forwarding the shipper’s information to the vessel.

Loading and transport by sea-going vessel

The stowage and segregation regulations of the IMDG Code stipulate the areas in which the various dangerous goods may be loaded on board a ship and the safety distances that must be maintained on and below deck. For example, certain dangerous goods must be shielded from sunlight or not stowed near other dangerous goods, as doing so could create hazards. If the temperature of some dangerous goods needs to be regularly monitored, they are stowed in a manner that will enable the crew to access them during the voyage.  

The ship-specific stowage plans can be used to determine exactly where individual dangerous goods have been loaded on board. With this plan and the dangerous goods list, the crew has all the information it needs to safely handle the cargo during transport and to properly respond to an emergency. 

Prepared for emergencies

Should an incident involving dangerous cargo take place at sea, the ship and crew are prepared to respond to it. In accordance with the SOLAS convention, every ocean-going vessel must have a range of emergency-related equipment on board, such as smoke detectors, water extinguishing systems and CO2 extinguishing systems. The crew conducts firefighting drills and practices how to use fire-extinguishing and rescue equipment on a monthly or regular basis.

For incidents involving dangerous goods, there are special accident leaflets on board including instructions on how to fight fires and respond to leaks, which are tailored to the various classes of dangerous goods. Substance databases contain additional information on the particularities of the respective dangerous good, its potential hazards and, if necessary, the containment and rescue measures that should be launched in response. 


Safety risks of improperly declared dangerous goods

Dangerous goods that are improperly declared or not declared at all pose a high level of danger. Since no shipping company is capable of checking every single container on board, the crew is forced to rely on the shipper to correctly classify, package and declare the dangerous goods. In fact, shippers are legally obliged to do so, as they are the only ones who know the exact characteristics of their products. This is the only way to ensure safe carriage on board and to take the right steps to safeguard people, the marine environment and the ship in the event of an emergency.