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Cargo and Ballast Operations Safety Guideline for Oceangoing Cargo Ships

Cargo and ballast operation plans should be carefully prepared and monitored onboard all merchant ships. Such plans need to consider Seasonal Load Line Zones, Port restrictions, Shipboard limits, e.g., Draft, Cargo capacity, Stability, Stresses, etc. On a dry-cargo or passenger ship, the ballast system is operated from the engine room. On a tanker, the entire ballast system is located within the cargo area and is operated from a pump room. Ballast piping is usually made of ordinary mild steel. A ship's size determines the capacity of its ballast system.

Ballast water violations: Deballasting in port can have administrative consequences if it is not performed according to the rules. All major maritime nations now adopt the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships Ballast Water & Sediments (BWM Convention). It aimed primarily for strict compliance with the protection of the marine environment. Many coastal states and local ports might have their unique ballast regulations that must be followed. Always coordinate with the agent for local rules and seek clarification where required.

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A ship's safety management rules required all ballast lines, and valves should be clearly marked and ballasting processes well documented. A double-check on all line-ups before pressing 'pump on' is an excellent way to avoid any accident. It is always better to come clean with the truth in the first instance rather than weave a web of lies or let the error remain unreported. Reporting errors, close calls, or minor incidents are the basis of a strong safety culture. Not reporting has the effect of undermining safety and 'doubling-down' on any unwanted consequences.

Ballast water discharging

Checks should be made to ensure that ballast water is flowing into the designated tank. Crew members should also ensure that ballasting is stopped in a timely fashion to avoid over-pressurized or overflow ballast tanks. Checks should also be made to ensure that ballast water is not leaking into any other tank or a cargo hold through a leaking manhole cover. Ballast tanks fitted with automatic sounding gauges should be regularly fully tested for the accuracy of monitoring systems. Spot checks/manual soundings should be taken to ensure the accuracy of the gauges.

Cargo holds bilge alarms, and gauges should be regularly inspected, maintained, and tested. Even if the vessel is fitted with cargo hold bilge alarms and automated sounding gauges, these cannot always be relied on to function properly, and spot checks should be made with manual soundings. It is also prudent to undertake a regular visual inspection of the cargo spaces. The effectiveness of the non-return valves for bilge ejector systems should also be regularly tested and verified. All manhole covers (ballast, fuel, etc.) in cargo hold should be regularly inspected and properly closed/tightened after every tank inspection.


The Chief Officer shall be responsible for ensuring careful preparation of Cargo and Ballast operation plans and their implementation taking all relevant factors into consideration. The Cargo and Ballast operation procedures ensure that adequate manning levels are maintained during such operation. ILO and STCW requirements for working hours and minimum rest periods shall be complied with.

Ballast operation

When the Ship is not carrying cargo or is lightly loaded, sufficient ballast must be carried to ensure that the Ship's stress, stability, draft, trim, and propeller immersion is within permissible limits. These can safeguard a vessel in the prevailing or expected conditions. In meeting these parameters, the vessel must comply, at least, with the requirements of the IMO, Class (especially appendix to Class Certificate), and Port State Authorities. Non-compliance with the latest BWM convention rules has a serious consequence. Ballast operations must always be carried out within the vessel's capabilities and systems, and if the vessel is unable to follow any of the procedures ship owners/management Company is to be advised immediately.

Designated Officer

The Chief Officer is designated to carry out ballast procedures and maintain all records as required. The Master is to ensure that the Chief Officer is familiar with the shipboard safety management system requirements and IMO Guidelines. The Master must also ensure that all the crew members are given the instruction and are aware of the need for ballast water control procedures and the procedures being adopted on board.

Planning Of The Ballast Operations

Ballast operations are always to be planned by the Chief Officer and entered in form Cargo Loading and Discharge Plan. The plan is to be approved by the Master before commencing the operation. Each vessel must produce a standard plan for a complete change of ballast at sea.

Records And Reporting

When taking on ballast waters, the date and time of commencement and completion of the ballast operation, Ship's position, salinity (specific gravity), and amount of ballast water taken on board must be recorded in the Ship's Ballast Record Book. A report in the format shown in the appendix to IMO Guidelines must be completed by the Master and made available to the Port State Authority on request. Analysis certificates, ballast reports, and shore receipts must always be kept on board in a separate file. When the Port State Authority water ballast control requirements (e.g., exchange of ballast at sea) cannot be met during the voyage due to weather condition, operational impracticability, etc, the Master must report this fact to the management company and the prospective Port State Authority before entering its national waters (economic zone), so that appropriate alternative action can be arranged.

The B.W. tanks have to be daily checked by sounding (at sea and in port). The Ship's crew should do these checks, and the sounding records should be handed to the Ch. Officer. The readings should be recorded in the "B.W. Tank Soundings Log" without delay. B.W. Tank Soundings Log should be a permanently binded / hardcover notebook with serialized pages. i.e., No electronic files and no loose page folders are accepted for record-keeping. The daily records (usually in the forms of notes) from the Bosun will be transferred to this log by the C/O without delay, and the same notes (Bosun notes) will be maintained for three months by the C/O readily available for inspection on request.

The B.W. Tank Soundings Log should be retained in the Cargo Office when the vessel is underway at the port and in the bridge, enabling the Officer of the Watch and the Master to have immediate access to the latest readings if needed. Master's Confirmation. To ensure these records are appropriately completed and kept, the Master will countersign the log at the end of each month by stating, "Having reviewed the records of this log, I verify that they are truthful, accurate and correct" Name–Rank–Date, and Signature.

Controls Applies By Port State Authorities

The Master is to check in advance with the local agent, and the latest Port Guide, for any information on ballast water sediment discharge procedures, being applied by the State Authorities at an expected port of call. These procedures may include, but are not limited, the following control actions:
  1. The non-release of ballast water;
  2. Ballast water exchange and sediment removal at sea or in acceptable areas;
  3. Ballast water management practices, aimed at minimizing the uptake of contaminated water in ballasting and deballasting operations;
  4. Discharge of ballast water into shore-facilities.
Failure to comply with national requirements may lead to unnecessary delays for the Ship. In some cases, penalties may be applied by Ports State Authorities. The vessel may be required to proceed to an approved location to carry out the necessary exchange, seal the ballast tanks against discharge in the Port State's waters, pump the ballast water to shore reception facilities, or prove, by laboratory analysis, that the ballast water is acceptable.

Loading Of Ballast Water

During ballasting operations, every effort is to be made to ensure only clean ballast and the intake of sediment are minimized. Where practicable, vessels are to avoid taking on ballast water in shallow water areas or the vicinity of dredging operations. Vessels must not ballast if at all practicable in areas where there is a known outbreak of water communicable diseases or where phytoplankton blooms are occurring.

It is recognized, however, that when vessels trade to river or estuary ports, the intake of some silts and sediment is unavoidable. In such situations, the amount of silt taken on board can often be substantially reduced by planning to ballast on the flood tide when the suspended silt levels usually are lower. Vessels taking on ballast in a river or estuary waters or any other areas where the purity of the water is in doubt, including areas of probable contamination from chemicals, disease, pathogens, etc. must follow the control procedures .

When ballast has been loaded in silted or otherwise polluted water, the ballast is to be changed as soon as possible after leaving that port. Whenever possible, the initial filling of the ballast tanks should be run in from the sea by gravity, in preference to pumping it in. In general, ballast tanks are to be filled to 100% capacity as far as practicable, but not be overflowed.

Ballast Water Exchange And Sediment Removal

The most realistic and practical method for the control of transportation of marine organisms and to control sediments is to exchange ballast water in the deep ocean or open sea areas. This will limit the probability that freshwater or coastal species would be transferred in the ballast water. The responsibility for deciding on such action rests with the Master. The Master must contact the Port State Authority of his next port via the agents and determine if particular control actions are required. All major maritime nations now signed the ballast water management convention and agreed to abide by the requirement of ballast water exchanges. The exchange is to be conducted in water depths greater than 2000 meters, or in those cases where this is not possible, exchange of ballast water is to be made well clear of coastal and estuary influences.

The draining of each tank is to be done until pump suction is lost. It will minimize the likelihood of residual organism survival. The tank is then to be flushed over the bottoms by refilling (if possible – by gravity) to approx. 0.5-meter depth, twice, each time followed by complete draining until pump suction is lost. The tank is then to be refilled. The effectiveness of this flushing can be increased if the vessel is on a course that causes the vessel to roll slightly. However, the vessel must not deviate greater than 15 degrees from the intended voyage course during the flushing time. When heavy sedimentation is observed after visual inspection, then manual sediment removal may be undertaken. Tanks are to be inspected visually for sediment build-up at least annually, and sediment builds up recorded on the tank condition report, which is to be forwarded to the management company.

Flow Through Exchanges

When a vessel cannot conduct a complete ballast change, a "flow-through" (through ballast tank vents) exchange of ballast water may be an acceptable alternative for some tanks. However, it has little effect on sediment control. Due to the risk of building up the pressure in ballast tanks, and the possibility of damage to vent heads, screens, etc. this procedure would require Administration (Classification) approval and must not be attempted without prior special considerations and authority of the Company. Modification of tank venting arrangements may be necessary to avoid damage to the vent heads and screens.

Discharge Of Ballast Water

No ballast is to be discharged in the continental shelf, coastal or port waters where State Authorities are applying ballast water and sediment control measures. Appropriate local and international legislation on ballast water and sediment control procedures must be followed. Before discharging ballast water, the surface of the ballast water must be visually checked to ensure no contamination, mainly where ballast tanks are adjacent to fuel tanks. The vessel procedures' effectiveness may be verified by Port State Authorities taking samples of ballast water and or sediments from the vessel to test for the continued survival of unwanted aquatic organisms and pathogens. Such samples may also be taken from suction wells, chain lockers and other areas where sediment may accumulate.

In some instances, discharge of ballast will not be permitted until analysis of such samples is completed. The Master is to ensure that relevant written authorization is obtained from the Port Authority before discharging any ballast to coastal waters of any country that exercises ballast control measures. Shortly after commencement and during discharge of any ballast overboard, the surface of the sea is to be checked frequently to guard against accidental pollution.

Discharge of Ballast Water to Shore Reception Facilities

The Master is to check if there are any requirements for shore-based discharge of ballast through voyage orders, agent instructions, "Guide to Port Entry," etc. If there is any doubt, the relevant Management Office must be referred to for advice, before arrival.

Sample Analysis Certificate

Vessels may avoid ballast changing in some circumstances by having their ballast water or harbor source samples analyzed by a laboratory at the departure port. Where the analysis shows the ballast or sediment to be free from unwanted aquatic organisms or pathogens, an analysis certificate is to be provided by the Master to the Port State of arrival. It must be carried out by fax several days before arrival in case the analysis is rejected so that the ballast change procedures can be applied before arrival.

Manual Removal Of Solid Elements

Care is to be taken when manually removing sediments while the Ship is in port or continental shelf waters, to ensure sediments are not discharged into these waters. Sediments must be disposed of ashore and processed according to the local requirements. A logbook entry is to be made, and receipts obtained. This part applies to solid sediment discharges, and does not affect sediments that can be removed from the chain locker or wells by hand hosing.

Ballast Operation Precautions

Personnel Safety
If tank entry is required to affect the taking of samples, carrying out a ballast tank inspection, or for manually removing solid sediments, then all the safety precautions of the Enclosed Space Entry Permit Form must be complied with.

Entrance to a ballast tank
Entrance to a ballast tank

Ship’s Safety

When planning and carrying out operations with ballast water the following factors must be taken into account: The Ship’s course and speed is to be properly set depending on the prevailing weather conditions. Sufficient personnel must be available to allow the safe monitoring of the operation.

Ballast Tank’s Venting System

It is of paramount importance that all segregated and permanent ballast tank vents are properly set up and in good condition before any ballast operation. All vent closures that are capable of manual operation must be in the open position. The original design venting capability must be available at all times. The vents are to be further checked soon after starting the operation to confirm that the tanks are venting freely. Improperly set ballast vents can result in severe structural damage to the vessel. Vent screens are to be kept free from paint as this can seriously reduce their volumetric capacity.

Great care is to be taken in conditions where icing is occurring. In certain circumstances, screens on ballast tank vents can become blocked by icing. During ballast operations in such conditions, the responsible officer is to ensure that all precautions are adopted to ensure the free venting of ballast tanks and that regular checks are made to ensure continuous free venting throughout the operation.

Cathodic Protection

Uncoated clean ballast tanks have a sacrificial zinc anode system fitted to protect the entire tank structure. If loading ballast into tanks fitted with cathodic protection in a freshwater river or estuary, it is important to change the ballast at sea as soon as is practical, in order to achieve the full effect of the cathodic protection system.

Inside a ballast side tank
Inside a ballast side tank


Ballast tanks must be inspected on a twelve-monthly basis and a report on the condition of the tank should be sent to the Management Office. More frequent inspections may be carried out if the tanks are in poor condition or if work has been carried out within the tank. If it has been necessary to weld securing arrangements, such as pad eyes, onto the side plating of a cargo hold for the lashing of cargo, then the area behind the plating within the tank must be inspected and touched up with a suitable coating.

Cargo / Ballast Operation Plan

Regardless kind of merchant ships, the Cargo Operation Plan shall be prepared, taking into account, the following factors:
  1. Cargo Information
  2. Any restrictions
  3. Ballasting / De-ballasting operations
  4. Cargo Stowage
  5. Trim and Draft of the vessel
  6. Number of tanks that may be slack at any time (if applicable)
  7. Any Bunkering and Storing operations
  8. Communication systems agreed and tested before operations

Loading computer

Where a class approved loading computer is fitted onboard, testing of the system using standard conditions shall be carried out at least Every Three Months to confirm accuracy of operation. If another loading computer is in use onboard, regular checks shall be made to compare computed cargo & stability results against standard conditions in the Trim & Stability Booklet to confirm the accuracy of operation. Any significant variance in results in comparison with standard conditions shall be reported to shore management for appropriate corrective action.

Hull stress

Hull stresses shall be carefully monitored during cargo and ballast operations onboard vessel. The loading computer is to be regularly updated for conditions on board. A comparison of actual and calculated draft & trim is also to be carried out to obtain warning of any unplanned or unobserved deviation from the plan. Undue stresses on the hull shall be avoided, and stresses shall be maintained within stipulated limits at all times.

Training for Cargo and Ballast Operations

The Master should ensure that where practicable, Junior officers are actively involved in all phases of the preparation and execution of Cargo and Ballast operation plan with particular emphasis on:
  1. Monitoring of Hull stresses including Shearing forces, Bending moments and Torsional stresses as applicable
  2. Safety operation against any hazards on cargo handling
  3. Cargo Loading / Discharging Plan
  4. Guideline for reading Bay Plan and General Stowage Plan & Verification of any Special Cargo/ Containers stowage (For Container Ships)
Senior officers are encouraged to mentor their Juniors and provide them with on the Job Training in Cargo and Ballast operations. All such Job Training & Development should be documented.

Mooring procedures

Unsafe mooring or Defect on mooring systems shall cause the Ship unexpected parting from the berth, which may lead to human causality and damage to Ship, and Shore facility. If such accidents occur on Oil Tankers, it will give rise to a severe accident, including Major Oil Pollution and Fire hazard.

Note: Port State Control (PSC) is the inspection of foreign ships in other national ports by PSC officers (inspectors) to verify that the competency of the Master and officers on board, and the condition of the Ship and its equipment comply with the requirements of international conventions (e.g., SOLAS, MARPOL, STCW, etc.) and that the vessel is crewed and operated in compliance with applicable international law.

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