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Cargo damage: the role and challenges of a P&I surveyor

Read time: 6 minutes

There’s no such thing as a typical cargo damage survey. It’s not just the widely differing types of cargo but also the sheer endless number of potential causes. And the all-compassing tasks and responsibilities of the surveyor, who cannot take anything for granted.

Let me illustrate my point with an example. A vessel was discharging a bulk parcel of corn and in the top of the stow an isolated small black spot was detected. We were asked to be on standby. No one expected this to be very important. Until four days later… The cargo was burning fiercely, resulting in a 1 million dollar claim. Our investigation showed that the lights of the hold entrance had not been switched off for the duration of the 14-day voyage, heating the cargo continuously.

The role of the P&I Surveyor

Protecting the interests of the Club and the member is the main concern of the P&I surveyor. Which is why we act, attend and communicate without prejudice, so as not to harm those interests in terms of potential liability.

In addition to the potential exposure in terms of financial loss, an important question is whether any damage was caused on board. In fact, the condition in which the cargo is found may be related to its pre-shipment condition. And when the damage has been caused on board, preventative measures must be taken to avoid further damage or repetition.

We may act on behalf of the Club and the member, but we are wholly independent and unbiased. Fact finding is what a surveyor does. And this is how we go about it.

Collecting information

Once assigned, our first challenge is to collect useful information. You’d think obtaining details of the exact location of a vessel is easy, yet “somewhere in Rotterdam” is what we sometimes get. The name of the vessel, contact details, agency details, the name of the Club involved and whether we represent charterers or owners are all relevant details. As are the details of other parties involved, any documents and photographs, the type of cargo and the current status on board.

Types of claims

Cargo may be damaged in lots of ways. It may have shifted due to heavy weather in combination with substandard securing, dry or liquid cargo may have been mixed or contaminated. The lack of proper blocking and bracing of cargo inside containers may result in containers to collapse. As does bad stowage. When involved in pre-shipment surveys, lashing and securing is one of the issues we address.

If cargo has shifted while at sea, restowing and proper lashing and securing may not always be possible. It’s vital for a surveyor to be able to come up with creative solutions. In one case, we resolved the situation, by filling the gaps with Big Bags filled with sand, which duly blocked the shifted cargo. The vessel then reached port safely, discharged and even sold the sand to local authorities. Some cargo had been damaged and some needed repacking, but the loss was insubstantial, compared to what it could have been.

Wet damage due to water ingress also occurs often. Silver nitrate testing can be used to indicate the presence of chlorides and, therefore, possibly seawater.

Contamination claims are tricky. Ensuring empty, clean tanks is one way of avoiding onboard issues. However, the shore tanks and shore line systems may well have been the problem. Stringent sampling by the vessel is the answer. Manifold samples, samples taken at the terminal and during loading, all duly sealed and labeled are key to our investigations. Which is why we have the samples taken by a dedicated cargo inspection company to draw and retain samples for any future analysis.

The nature of the investigation

In case of complaint about the state of the cargo, a surveyor typically concentrates on the nature, cause and extent of the alleged damage. Surveys are often conducted jointly with the other parties involved.

The one thing to be aware of, is that the receiver’s complaint may in fact not be damage. The cargo may be off-spec, but that doesn’t mean there is damage to the cargo. This is easily determined by analysing the samples taken at the various stages.

If the cargo has indeed been damaged, the cause needs to be established. This involved the collection of documents, physical inspections of holds, cargo tanks and pipelines, and the cargo itself. Officers and crew are interviewed and systems are tested. Tests include pressure testing of heating coils on board tankers, the testing of bilge systems, cargo pumps, etc. In addition to cargo inspectors taking and analysing the samples, other parties such as fire investigators and even translators may be retained.

Having established the cause, it needs to be remedied, to prevent the problem from happening again. This may be a technical resolution, but also adaptation of procedures. I could illustrate this with damage caused by backflow from the bilge system, causing wet damage to the cargo. The vessel was equipped with a bilge high-level alarm. However, the alarm was not in good working order and the crew had neglected to take manual bilge soundings during the voyage. In fact, the bilge levels were not monitored at all. On top of that, the non-return valve in the bilge line was not tight. We found cargo residue inside the line. The failing systems were repaired. In addition, the checklists were updated to ensure hat manual bilge soundings are taken regularly, so as not to rely entirely on automated level alarms.

It is, of course, vital that the damage should be mitigated. As we did in the case of the shifting cargo. Other measures include the separation and discharge of damaged cargo to prevent contamination, onboard filtering of liquid cargo, and repairs to or repacking breakbulk cargo. Salvage sales of damaged cargo too limit the loss. The surveyor then collects the tender documents and bids, to ensure the process is handled properly. And if depreciation of the cargo value has been agreed, the interested parties must be able to justify the amount.


After the initial survey, a preliminary report is drawn up. This may be a short message, sent while still on board or immediately after. Relevant findings are then reported at regular intervals. If the vessel is still in port, this may be done on a daily basis. The final report covers all the facts and findings, as well as the considerations and remarks of the surveyor.

The report is the surveyor’s ultimate ‘product’ and its accuracy and level of detail make the difference when the client’s interests are at stake.

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