With compliance to the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code being an essential requirement for those involved in shipping hazardous cargo, the region's maritime industry must remain one step ahead of the game.
In an ideal shipping world, companies across the sea freight industry should be jumping at the chance to prove their commitment to reducing the likelihood of accidents when handling dangerous goods.
After all, what distinguishes accidents involving hazardous goods from other types of cargo is the amount of potential damage and destruction they can wreak.
As well as risking the lives of the crew members onboard, the impact of a resulting spill can have a devastating impact on the marine environment - with repercussions lasting for years to come.
In reality unfortunately, such a serious implication cannot rely simply on a company's social conscience, but requires the clout of a mandatory regulatory framework, designed to strictly penalise any non-compliance.
For the shipping industry, the International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) Code takes on the role of big brother, keeping the shipping of dangerous goods closely in check.
The IMDG Code was developed as a uniform international code for the transport of dangerous goods by sea covering such matters as packing, container traffic and stowage, with particular reference to the segregation of incompatible substances," explains Irfan Rahim, head of cargo section, maritime safety division, International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
Rahim is confident that the shipping industry in the region is successfully incorporating the IMDG code as part of its own policies around transporting and handling hazardous goods - not unsurprisingly perhaps as the code is now mandatory under SOLAS (the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (1971).
Ships carrying dangerous goods subject to the mandatory provisions of the code are unlikely to gain entry to ports when not in compliance with them, and are likely to be delayed or detained," he is quick to point out.
Since its adoption in 1965, the code has undergone many changes, both in appearance and content to keep pace with the ever changing needs of industry. Rahim believes it is imperative that shipping companies keep up to date with these amendments.
Actual amendments to the provisions of the United Nations Recommendations are made on a two yearly cycle and approximately two years after, they are adopted by the authorities responsible for regulating the various transport modes," he explains.
And of course, the major benefit of having such an international regulatory code in place is that it helps to harmonise standards for the shipping of dangerous goods across the globe. "Shipping is an international industry which needs international rules," says Rahim.
"The ships themselves actually move between countries and continents and therefore between different legal jurisdictions, so shipping simply has to be regulated internationally.
When it comes to dangerous goods, he adds, it is essential that shipping has uniform international rules for the transport of dangerous goods by sea covering such matters as packing, container traffic and stowage, so that seafarers, port workers and the ships themselves can be protected equally, wherever they may be in the world.
One of the region's largest providers of shipping, logistics and marine services, GAC World, strongly advocates this perspective. "On the whole it is imperative that procedures for handling dangerous goods cargo should be the same globally," highlights Dennis Jadhav, NYK team manager, GAC Dubai.
"Personnel in the shipping industry need to be more careful while handling dangerous goods and ensure the cargo is moved as per IMDG regulations."
As a ship agent, GAC keeps itself updated of the IMDG codes and has incorporated relevant elements into its own Quality Assurance Policy.
As part of this policy, the company ensures there is line approval for each dangerous good cargo accepted from the shipper. These dangerous goods are carried and packed as per IMDG regulations with their IMO labels intact.
GAC follows a set of instructions from our principals pertaining to dangerous goods commodity by sending dangerous goods acceptance and approval messages prior to accepting cargo in the line box," Jadhav explains.
With the accelerating growth being experienced by the shipping industry in the Middle East, Jadhav believes the region's record of handling hazardous goods in the region has shown a definite improvement, especially in terms of increasing compliance to the IMDG code.
We have not come across any incidents relating to hazardous cargo in the shipping industry in the Middle East recently," he adds positively.
Lawrie Holman, regional director of safety and environment at the renowned port and terminal operator DP World, is eager to back this viewpoint.
In all the years I have been in the Middle East, there has been considerable improvement in this industry not only in the field of IMDG containers, but to HSE as a whole," he says. "The ports and shipping industry is determined to make safety a culture and not a marketing tool.
Today's managers are responsible and accountable for safety. However, the shippers of goods should be made more accountable for declaring the correct cargo in a container."
This last point is even more salient for receivers of containers, such as DP World, as well as shippers. As Holman points out, his company is very reliant on the shipper to accurately declare the contents of the container and identify cargo as potentially hazardous.
If hazardous goods are not declared so the terminal can properly handle and store them, it can lead to serious problems," he says.
The company itself considers the safe handling of hazardous and dangerous cargo to be a major priority. "The IMDG code is an integral part of the safety systems that we operate under.
We have processes in place to ensure that we make the right decision on what to use and what to wear when dealing with the removal of such cargo. There are numerous occasions when we call specialist contractors to deal with a leaking container," says Holman.
With over 300 hundred containers dealt with on a daily basis, Holman believes it is imperative that the movement of containers is done properly and the cargo handled correctly. "Hazardous goods can have adverse effects on our people, our business and the safety of our customers," he emphasises.
"We train our personnel in the IMDG code and also how to deal with spills should they occur, but we believe that prevention is better than cure.
As a keen advocate of the need for such standards across the shipping industry, Holman has some suggestions of how the regulations around dangerous goods could be further embraced by all shippers.
When there is an incident, I would like to see the investigation taken back to the point of origin to determine where the weak link in the transport chain was, and action taken if necessary against the offenders," he asserts.
I would also like to see more container terminals with areas for hazardous goods that segregate IMDG containers from other containers, although this may not be easy due to space constraints.
Other operators in the region are also keen to get more involved. "It would be good for relevant companies to get involved in maintaining the IMDG Code," contributes Issa Baluch, chairman, Swift Freight International.
This way, the companies would be updated with the latest policies and trends in securing cargo and also provide suggestions that will help the initiatives of regulatory bodies.
Swift Freight itself receives its IMDG updates through membership with trade associations such as the National Association of Freight Logistics (NAFL). Infact, keeping updated and informed about developments in the IMDG code is essential to making sure that the latest standards are adhered to.
There are many avenues where you can find out about next release of the code, such as the IMO website, trade publications and even information exchange with friends and colleagues," points out Sonny Zin, assistant general manager of vessel economy and efficiency at Maersk Singapore.
"Maersk Line itself has direct cooperation with the IMO and actively participates in the IMDG Code related issues. We just get the latest release or the amendment of the code and revise our house rule accordingly.
The company's own set of house rules is based on the IMDG code with its own added stringent requirements and guidelines - readily accessible to employees through its intranet and mainframe computer systems. "We also have regular dangerous goods training programmes for employees around the world and plan to introduce online e-learning," he continues.
With responsibility for Maersk Line's dangerous cargo department, which spans the Far East to the Middle East, Zin strongly concurs that handling hazardous and dangerous goods is a very serious matter indeed.
If these goods are not handled properly, the consequences may be severe," he says. "Safety of our crew working onboard our vessels, together with the environment and the vessels themselves are very important to us.
With its team of well-trained experts working around the clock to scrutinise each and every dangerous goods booking coming to the company, Maersk Line is proud of its commitment to safety, and believes that this commitment needs to be shared with those involved in the wider supply chain.
Not only the shipping lines but also everyone handling dangerous goods including manufacturers of such goods, freight forwarders and truck drivers must be fully aware of, and follow, the code," he emphasises.
Indeed, keeping on top of the code's requirements and its amendments can help the region to greatly reduce the likelihood of an incident involving the shipping of dangerous goods.
When it comes to the major players in the region's shipping industry, knowledge and compliance to the IMDG code does appear to run high. More importantly, the implications of not adhering to such good practice when shipping dangerous goods remains a constant reminder to many of the importance of keeping the code high of their list of priorities.
When was the IMDG Code initially developed?
The code dates back to the 1960 Safety of Life at Sea Conference, which recommended that governments should adopt a uniform international code for the transport of dangerous goods by sea to supplement the regulations contained in the 1960 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).
A resolution adopted at the conference said the proposed code should cover such matters as packing, container traffic and stowage, with particular reference to the segregation of incompatible substances.
Who prepares the amendments?
Preparation of the draft amendments is the responsibility of the organisation's maritime safety division and amended versions are available for purchase from the IMO Publishing Services.
When is the next amendment to the code expected?
The sub-committee on Dangerous Goods, Solid Cargo and Containers (DSC) agreed draft amendment 34 08 to the IMDG Code, for submission to the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) which meets in May 2008 for adoption.
The amendment includes changes to provisions for certain substances, including changes to requirements of documentation for dangerous goods in excepted quantities.
Amendments to the IMDG Code arising from the December 2006 UN Committee of experts on the transport of dangerous goods and on the globally harmonised system of classification and labelling chemicals are considered with the view to incorporation, where appropriate.
For more information, visit www.imo.org