Australia: Chain of Responsibility compliance and the container transport sector

Last Updated: 21 August 2017
Article by Nathan Cecil
Most Read Contributor in Australia, August 2018

The container transport sector throws up some very complex compliance hurdles compared to the transport of bulk or break-bulk cargo. The reason is that a container is a 'black box' and many intermediaries in the heavy vehicle supply chain who handle or transport a container have little actual knowledge of what is going on inside the container. Regardless, they can and have been held liable when what is on the inside of a container is non-compliant.

See no evil

A container will move through many hands on its journey from origin to destination. Usually, a container is sealed prior to departure and not opened until it reaches its destination. During its journey, a container is a black box. Intermediate contractors in the heavy vehicle supply chain that are handling or transporting a container usually have zero actual visibility over what is going on inside it.

As a result, the transport of containers poses significant risks of mass and load restraint breaches in particular. Mass breach is more likely to arise due to the unknown/unverified load distribution within a container. Load restraint breach is more likely to arise due to the unknown/unverified restraints applied to the load within a container.

Unfortunately, closing your eyes to what is inside a container will not protect you from prosecution.


Mass limits apply to both the gross mass and also individual axle or axle groups of a heavy vehicle. Just because the gross mass of a laden container falls within the maximum permitted gross loaded mass of a vehicle does not mean that the load is compliant. If uneven load distribution means that any of the individual axle mass limits are exceeded (e.g. all heavier items in a container are placed together up one end), then the load is in breach of the mass regulations, regardless of the fact that the overall load is within the gross mass limit.

By only considering and verifying the gross mass of a container and not obtaining any information as to the load distribution and/or centre of gravity of the loaded container, you are only doing half your job and unnecessarily exposing yourself to risk of non-compliance.

Load restraint

The national load restraint guidelines provide that:

  • A load on a heavy vehicle must not be placed in a way that makes the vehicle unstable or unsafe;
  • A load on a heavy vehicle must be secured so it is unlikely to fall or be dislodged from the vehicle; and
  • An appropriate method must be used to restrain the load on a heavy vehicle.

The Load Restraint Guide provides that:

"Equipment that can contain items of load must have adequate strength to restrain the load and must have provision for keeping the load on or inside it."

Although a container encloses the goods within it, a container cannot be treated for all purposes and in all circumstances as an effective means of load restraint. The walls of a container are not intended to and not rated to withstand the forces of shifting cargo. As a result, the Load Restraint Guide provides that:

"An internal restraint required for partially loaded containers and heavy individual objects. Any movement of the load inside the container during transport could adversely affect the carrying vehicle's stability or weight distribution.
Incorrect loading in a freight container can adversely affect the carrying vehicle's weight distribution or stability, especially if the load shifts during transport. The load should be arranged where possible so that its weight is evenly distributed over the floor and packed tightly against the walls of the container. Drivers should ask the consignor for information on the packing of the container. Any general freight container with uneven weight distribution (more than 60% of the load in less than half its length) should be clearly marked by the consignor with a centre of mass cargo symbol, to enable any necessary special precautions to be made for its transport."

So, where the goods inside a container do not entirely and securely fill it up so that there is no room for movement of the goods which could exceed the rating of the container walls and/or adversely affect the stability or handling of the heavy vehicle, load restraint must be applied to the goods inside the container. That load restraint must meet the Performance Standards set out in the Load Restraint Guide.

How do you comply?

Where you cannot see inside a container to determine the load distribution and sufficiency of restraint, how do you ensure your own compliance with the duty to take all reasonably practicable steps?

If you can't independently verify compliance matters, then you need to ask your counterparts in the heavy vehicle supply chain to verify them for you. So, you will need to (i) ensure that the person(s) within the supply chain who are responsible for packing a container are aware of and understand their obligations e.g. the exporter, importer, cargo consolidator, distribution centre at which a container is packed etc and (ii) seek confirmation from them about the load distribution and sufficiency of restraint.

As always, you can't blindly rely on that assurance in all circumstances. If you see something which suggests that the load distribution or restraint are not as you were told or not working properly (e.g. uneven load distribution showing on on-board scales or container walls bowed out, suggesting load shift within a container), then you will need to make enquiries with the person(s) responsible before handling or carrying that container.

This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.

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