Safety at issue for containers

Concern over safety is propelling a federal bill that would require that shipping containers be inspected each time they are interchanged. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) has released its findings on the bill in a report investigating the costs of maintaining intermodal chassis under proposed “roadability” regulations (H.R. 2863).

IBT’s study came in response to warnings from the Ocean Carriers Equipment Maintenance Association (OCEMA) that the proposed regulations would result in steep costs to the industry.

The regulations propose to make the controller of intermodal chassis responsible for inspecting the chassis each time the equipment is interchanged with a motor carrier, to ensure it complies with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) standards. Motor carriers would be barred from accepting a container that has not been inspected prior to receiving it.

According to the study funded by IBT, “the cost of interchanging equipment from chassis providers to motor carriers will increase by just over $8 per interchange.” The estimate is based on an hourly mechanic’s hourly salary of $50 and completing an inspection every ten minutes.

Representative Henry Brown (R-SC), the original sponsor of the bill that was introduced last year, as well as the American Trucking Associations (ATA), back the study.

Jeffrey Lawrence, OCEMA executive director, said he conservatively estimates inspections would cost $50 per interchange. Assuming that a container is inspected once a week, given the 750,000 containers that are operational today, the proposed regs would cost the industry nearly $2 billion, he says.

“What they’ve proposed is an inspection that is quite expensive,” said Lawrence. “There are 750,000 chassis, used both for international and domestic commerce, and would be subject to a full inspection every time there is an interchange.”

He countered the IBT-funded study by saying that the inspection proposed would also take much longer than the 10-minute estimates in the report.

The regulations seek to ensure the safety of highway through aggressive inspection protocols. It also acknowledges “motor carriers do not possess the requisite level of control or authority over this intermodal equipment to perform the systemic maintenance, repair and inspection necessary to ensure compliance with the FMCSA regulations.”

Additionally, the bill addresses accountability issues for container safety. Currently, motor carriers and its drivers are cited and fined for containers violating FMCSA standards. “Congress should exercise its power to ensure that only those parties who control the equipment…assume responsibility for the safety of that equipment as it travels in interstate commerce.”

According to OCEMA’s Lawrence, the reason why safety has been an issue with shipping containers is because of the amorphous nature of the ownership of equipment. Containers are typically supplied by a number of owners— such as shipping companies and leasing organizations, which underscores the need for an industry standard.

Lawrence points to the “systematic maintenance check” standards which address safety concerns developed by the Intermodal Association of North America. “Over the last year and a half we’ve been working with equipment providers and motor carriers to come across solutions for this. We have the federal oversight and the industry standards for maintenance have been developed. A solution is well under way in the legislation.”

Inspections now consist of annual checks by equipment owners, as well as daily visual checks performed by drivers. This system is not nearly enough, Dave Osiecki, ATA’s vp of safety and operations said. Compliance rates to FMCSA standards have been “abysmal,” he said. “Brake-adjustment is the most common problem,” he said pointing out that two people are needed, not one driver, to diagnose this.

“The piece that’s missing is the big piece— preventative maintenance,” Osiecki said.

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