Best Practices for Loading, Stowing, and Securing a Freight Container

If you don’t think it’s important to properly plan how you pack your freight container, think again.  Annual losses from improperly packed shipping containers add up to $5 billion globally.  Did you know that shippers who incorrectly pack their containers not only suffer the loss of their own cargo, but are also liable for damages caused to other containers as well as the vessel itself?  Worse yet, cargo insurance won’t cover these losses if the shipper is proven to be negligent.

So don’t just stow and go.  Follow these best practices for loading, stowing, and securing a freight container to ensure your cargo arrives safely and securely at its final destination.

Inspect the Container

When the container arrives, be sure to check the condition of the container.  If the container that you are using to pack your goods is not in good condition, you open yourself up to possible cargo damage, loss, and claims.  While it is the responsibility of the containers’ owner, usually the shipping line, to ensure that each container is maintained and in good order, it is important that the shipper inspect the container to ensure that it is seaworthy and will protect the integrity of your goods during transit.  Containers that leak, pose a safety hazard to personnel, or have inherent defects which could that endanger the cargo must be rejected.

It is highly recommended that shippers use a 7-Point CTPAT Container Inspection Checklist to document the container inspection results.  Shippers might also consider taking pictures of the container before and after the cargo has been loaded, which should be filed with the container inspection checklist.  Click here to download a copy of OCEANAIR’s 7-Point CTPAT Container Inspection Checklist.

Begin by inspecting the outside of the container, ensuring that:

  • The walls are free from dents, bulges or other damage
  • There are no holes or cracks in the walls or roof
  • The doors shut tight and are watertight, as this is often a vulnerable point
  • The lock rods close and lock properly
  • The slots for the seals are present and usable
  • All placards and markings applicable to previous hazardous cargoes, precautions, or destinations have been removed from doors and walls

For the interior inspection, check to make sure that:

  • The empty container is clean, dry, and free from any unusual smells or stains
  • The floorboard is not cracked or broken
  • There are no nails or other protrusions which could damage the cargo
  • No light comes in through the walls or ceiling, and there are no fractured welds; if any light enters, then water will
    • If in doubt, spray the container with a hose
  • The container is fitted with cargo restraint devices, which are in good condition and in sufficient supply

If you are using a refrigerated or other special purpose container, inspect for the following: 

  • Motors and compressors are in good operating condition and perform as required; also check to make sure that adequate fuel has been supplied
  • Valves and piping are free of leaks and have tight fittings
  • Electrical wiring and connections should be clean and free of corrosion and switches operate properly

If the container doesn’t pass your inspection, call for another container.  Remember, if you do not give your valuable cargo the best start possible, it has little chance of arriving safely to its final destination.

Stow and Stuff the Container

As the shipper, you are responsible for packing and loading (known as stowing and stuffing) the cargo into the shipping container.  By following proper loading practices, you will ensure that your goods arrive safely at their final destination.

It is important to note that improper loading of cargo can lead goods being damaged in transit.  Customs may also examine your container if x-rays show improper or unprofessional loading, which could be a sign of concealing unusual or illicit items.  If Customs conducts an intensive exam of the shipment, it may cause additional delays and significant expense.

Although it is highly recommended to pack a shipping container to capacity, it is important to bear in mind that it is not always possible.  Depending on the nature of the cargo, there are times when dunnage or padding will need to be “stuffed” between cargo items to ensure that the goods are not damaged during transit.  If products are to be wrapped in dunnage (loose wood, matting, or similar material used to protect and secure cargo), it is important to wrap and measure their volume prior to loading to ensure that there are no mistakes made when calculating the number of items the container will hold.

Be ready to load the container as quickly as possible after it arrives to avoid extra charges.

You will be responsible for the condition of the packing, so ensure that it is done well by following these best practices.

Plan for Ease of Unloading 

  • Be mindful of the order in which your goods will be unloaded – items that should be removed first should be loaded last
  • Use partitions, dividers, or paper/plastic sheets to physically separate cargo intended for multiple consignees
  • Place pallets or skids with the forklift openings facing front toward the door
  • Leave enough room at the top for items which will be removed using a forklift
  • Fill the empty spaces between the goods with dunnage and avoid wedging or jamming the cargo into the container
  • Construct a partition to prevent cargo from putting pressure on the container doors and to prevent the cargo from falling out when the doors are opened

Distribute Weight Equally

  • Avoid putting all the heavy items together in one corner or on one side of the container
  • Spread the weight evenly across the entire area of the container’s floor
  • Box, crate, or skid heavy, dense items
  • Ensure cargo tiers are level when stacking
  • Stack boxes and crates of uniform size directly on top of each other
  • Separate groups of boxes and crates of different weight or dimensions by using partitions, dividers or auxiliary decking
  • Use cradles of skids to evenly distribute the weight of machinery or heavy items; bold extremely heavy or dense items to the container deck (be sure to consult with the container owner for the approved method)

Utilize the Space

  • Use the entire floor space from wall to wall and fill empty spaces with dunnage
  • Do not stack all of the cargo in the back half of the container, as the cargo will shift during transit and could result in damaged or broken goods
  • Fill all empty spaces at the top, sides, or ends with fillers or partitions
  • Block, brace or tie down cargo to prevent movement in any direction (remember, do not apply bracing to panels or sheathing)
  • Cover cargo adjacent to doors with plastic or waterproof sheets to protect cargo from possible leakage

Avoid Mixing Incompatible Cargo 

  • Keep cargo that exudes an odor or moisture away from cargo that is susceptible to tainting or water damage
  • Box, crate, or pad items with sharp projections or have awkward or unusual shapes as not to damage the other cargo
  • Load cargo which could possibly leak or spill on the bottom and separate liquid cargo from other cargo
  • Stow the heaviest items on the bottom to prevent crushing or other damage
  • Place dunnage between high-density packages and low-density packages to prevent crushing
  • Keep chemicals away from food

Observe hazardous material regulations

Consult your carrier for regulations and restrictions when shipping:

  • combustibles
  • explosives
  • flammable liquids or solids
  • gaseous material
  • radioactive material
  • magnetized material
  • alkalis
  • corrosives
  • poisons
  • oxidizers
  • etiologic agents

Remember to confirm with the carrier that the hazmat placard will be in compliance with the en-route or destination country regulations.

Record the nature of the cargo on all shipping documents and affix a Hazardous Material Property label to the outside of the container.

Close and Seal the Container

The last step, prior to pickup of your container, is to secure your shipment.

  • Close all doors and affix locks and seals
  • Make sure all locking lugs are engaged
  • Record seal numbers and note them on the shipping documents
  • Check that package hazard labels and container placards, if required, have been applied