Fire at sea: Container vessel fires increasing



Container vessel fires are increasing. Fire safety has become an even higher priority for the marine insurance industry since the start of 2019 due to the growing number of fire incidents on container vessels. With the increasing size of these high-value vessels, there is great potential for costly claims. According to an April 2020 analysis1 of Nordic Marine Insurance Statistics (NoMIS) data, concerns include a lack of fire-fighting capabilities on board as well as misdeclaration of high-risk goods. 

Container vessel fires can result in life-threatening situations for crew members on board. In addition, these incidents can disrupt supply chains relying on sea freight by causing material damages, severe environmental impact, long shipment delays, and higher costs for salvage efforts. 

Contributing Factors

When goods are on the water, they become vulnerable to a variety of threats such as natural disasters, mechanical failures, and human error, to name a few. (Keep in mind, the amount of risk is proportionate to the size of the shipment, the degree of hazardous material, and the value of the goods.) However, with the rapid growth of international trade and the introduction of new technologies, new risks are emerging: 

  • Vessels continue to increase in size, with many carrying over 15,000 containers (twenty-foot equivalent unit for scale) on a single voyage, and the ships grow larger each year. 
  • Ocean carriers are sharing vessels due to continuously changing shipping routes.
  • The volumes of goods in containers continue to grow.
  • Incorrect declarations of dangerous goods and/or misclassification of products may lead to improper loading onboard vessels; the chance of risk increases with larger quantities of containers on board.

Examining incidents provides us a unique opportunity to identify emerging global supply chain factors, improve preparedness, enhance business continuity, and prioritize future research and policy decisions.

Alignment with Responsible Care®

The prevention of fire on board incidents aligns with the goals outlined in the Responsible Care® Guiding Principles:  

  • To design and develop products that can be manufactured, transported, used and disposed of or recycled safely.
  • To work with customers, carriers, suppliers, distributors and contractors to foster the safe and secure use, transport and disposal of chemicals and provide hazard and risk information that can be accessed and applied in their operations and products.
  • To make continual progress towards our goal of no accidents, injuries or harm to human health and the environment from our products and operations and openly report our health, safety, environmental and security performance. 

Reducing Risk of Container Vessel Fires

Chemical manufactures are encouraged to review their products’ supply chains to identify marine transportation and to conduct risk assessments of the products, containers and packaging of those in the marine environment. Transportation safety starts with the chemical manufactures and the selection of packaging and shipping containers and systems.   

Selecting equipment and supplies that can handle the unique stressors in the marine environment is a helpful first step. Labeling, packing, and placarding shipments following international dangerous goods regulations helps supply chain partners to be aware of and recognize product hazards.  

Properly describing the products on shipping documents and commercial interactions can further foster transportation safety as container handlers and carriers can make informed, safe decisions for container placement and inspection.  

Specifically, chemical shippers can:   

  • Develop the visibility and alert systems to evaluate the performance of supply chain partners. 
  • Incorporate the movement of international containers into your company’s culture of safety. 
  • Set up proper time allotments for all steps in the process (booking to delivery) to allow adequate time for review. 
  • Review your corporate educational program so that International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulations are understood and followed. 
  • Automate shipping descriptions to take care that there are no discrepancies as information and data is sent to all parties in the international operations. 
  • Periodically inspect ocean containers for proper blocking and bracing of products and keep your corporate manual up to date. 
  • Establish an audit program to review all shipping documents for consistency of data and information. 

Building resilience requires an understanding of supply chain vulnerabilities, consequences, and mitigation and recovery strategies. Prevention is a key step in reducing fire at sea events involving chemical products.