Blog January 21, 2015

Pack it in: Why does it matter to stow cargo inside containers safely?

By Nicola Byers

1.  Why should anyone care about how well containers are packed?

Failing to correctly pack and secure cargo inside containers can be dangerous, expensive and sometimes deadly.

‘Eccentric’ loads occur when cargo is not stowed securely or is not distributed evenly inside the CTU. This can destabilise the train, truck, ship or cargo handling equipment carrying the unit. Eccentric loads can also compromise the structural integrity of the CTU itself. The sides and sometimes floors of containers can be warped or broken when heavy objects move around inside the unit during transit.

Two-thirds of accidents involving the loss of or damage to containerised cargo are thought to be caused by improper packing and securing of cargo inside containers each year, according to estimates by the TT Club. Around 25% of all accidents involving trucks can be attributed to inadequately secured cargo. There have even been cases where the movement of unsecured cargo inside containers has caused freight trains to jump points and derail.

Containers are often lost at sea because they have either been poorly packed, or the shipper has inaccurately declared their weight, as Intermodal Eye investigated last year.

2. What guidance is out there?

A new Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (CTU Code) was published last year, having been jointly developed over 3 years by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), International Labour Organization (ILO) and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). ICHCA International, the cargo handling NGO organisation, was among those closely involved in the Group of Experts tasked by IMO/ILO/UNECE to create the new document.

Replacing an earlier 1997 publication, the new CTU Code aims to provide parties along the supply chain with detailed information about their responsibilities for proper packing. This includes specific details of how to pack and secure packages and cargo items for transport in CTUs such as containers, trailers, swap bodies and railcars.  The Code applies to shipment of all kinds of cargo, whether dry, liquid or refrigerated.

3. What is outlined in the Code?

The Code outlines specific procedures and techniques to improve safety, such as how weight can be equally distributed and properly positioned inside the container. It also includes guidance on how dunnage can be used to properly block and brace cargo according to what is being shipped, plus other safety considerations.

Around 28% of cargo and container incidents at sea are caused by misdeclared cargoes, according to data recorded by the Cargo Incident Notification System (CINS), run by major shipping lines. It is the shipper’s responsibility to correctly declare the composition of the cargo, as well as the gross mass of the packed CTU, the Code says.

Next year, container weight verification will be mandatory when new amendments to IMO’s SOLAS convention come into force, as Intermodal Eye covered previously. The CTU Code provides a useful and authoritative supplement to new container weighing legislation.

4. Who is the Code aimed at?

Everyone! The main body of the document provides broad overview for general management, plus more detailed information for supervisors and then far more precise information in appendices for the people involved in actually packing CTUs.

How can we obtain a copy of the CTU Code?

The authors of the CTU Code want to disseminate it as widely as possible, so the document has been published online as a free PDF here.

More information about the CTU Code and cargo handling safety issues can be found on the ICHCA website: