Container Seals:  Importance, Types and Requirements (1)

By Hari Menon  

Just as you would lock the door to your house to safeguard your personal belongings, maritime containers also need to be secured and locked to prevent pilferage and tampering of the goods within, while on its way to its destination.

Container seals are ‘one-time door locks’ used to secure goods containers. Each seal-lock can be used only once. Heavy-duty container seals are designed to withstand natural elements and last the entire voyage of the container until it is removed by the customer at the destination.

The duration of a container’s journey from the consignor’s warehouse to the consignee could be anywhere between two days to a few months! Delays can happen due to wrong documentation, port and labour union strikes, break-down of transport vessel, etc.

Before removing the container seal, the customer has to ensure that it is intact and has not been tampered with.

Container seals are of different types. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and price range. Each seal has a unique alphanumeric identification number that is used to confirm that it has not been changed during the container’s voyage.

However, care has to be taken while noting seal numbers as different types of seals may carry the same seal number, though this can happen only very rarely.

The Bill of lading includes the container seal number for verification by port authorities, port customs and the customer receiving the cargo.

The Need for Container Seals

Container seals are used to secure the container doors once the loading of cargo is completed. In certain cases, empty containers are locked and sealed before being sent for stuffing. This is done to prevent tampering and maintain container cleanliness or a set-temperature, as in the case of containers meant for loading of certain high-value products, highly perishable food items, or medicines.

It is a requirement by ports, government regulators, and importers/exporters that all FCL (Full Container Load) and LCL (Less than Container Load) containers are sealed during transport.

With the manifold increase in global trade, container movement between points of trade has increased drastically in recent times. An equally large number of empty containers are required to be moved between these trade points to meet demand.

Containers are used to transport different types of cargo based on temperature requirements such as dry, chill, or frozen. The cargo-types can be classified further as perishable, non-perishable, medical drugs, etc.

Depending on the type of consignment, the consignor/consignee or person sending/receiving the goods may decide to use a specific mode of transport and in a specific type of container.

These containers change hands at several points from the moment it leaves its storage location. For example, the stuffed cargo is taken to the port from where it is due for sailing. It then passes hands to the shipping vessel in which it sets sail to its destination. It may then stop at trans-shipment ports. At its final destination, it is unloaded and transported to the consignee’s address or warehouse.

It is therefore important that the cargo remains safe during its journey until it reaches its final offloading point, which is the warehouse of the consignee or person receiving the goods.

Even though security and features such as CCTV surveillance in warehouses, container yards, and even ships, help to deter those who indulge in criminal activities, the danger posed by smugglers, counterfeiters, human traffickers, drug traffickers, or exploitation by terrorists is still large.

It cannot be discounted in the case of cargo containers, whether empty or full. While shipping empty containers, some shipping lines stack them back-to-back.

In this method of stacking, the door side of any two containers is placed facing each other so that they cannot be opened during transit.

Different Types of Container Seals

Container seals are of different types. Seals using lead wire and a seal, plastic seals, metal strip seals, bolt seals, e-seals, and sometimes even number padlocks are used to seal containers during their voyage.

Of these, the safest and the most commonly used is the bolt seal. It consists of a metal pin that is driven into a plastic-coated steel barrel, forming a one-time lock and tamper-proof seal.

Bolt seals are made of heavy-duty steel, coated in tough weather-resistant, anti-corrosive plastic. A unique seal number is shown on both the pin as well as the barrel of the seal.

E-seals that are read-write capable usually contain basic data about the container and can be read using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) readers.

RFID technology is used to collect data from the computer chip that is embedded in the seal. The power to read data from these seals is taken from the radio frequency transmitted by the RFID readers.

Those with their own power source and transmitter are also available. These seals can accommodate more data but are slightly more expensive. One drawback of the RFID e-seals is that data can be read-only at points where there are RFID readers.

 *To be continued