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October 17, 2022

What You Need to Know About Shipping Hazardous Materials

What You Need to Know About Shipping Hazardous Materials featured image

Items are shipped all over the country through the mail and by commercial truck every day. It’s one of the fastest ways to get products into consumers’ hands. But, what happens when you’re in charge of ensuring hazardous materials are sent to their end destination? And how does this form of shipping differ from any other non-hazardous freight? 

If you or your company ships any form of hazardous materials, it’s important to consider what special rules and regulations you’ll need to follow. From start to finish, safety precautions and special guidelines are in place to increase the well-being of you and everyone that comes in contact with your shipment. If you aren’t aware of those regulations then you could risk injury or even death.

To avoid the dangers of shipping hazardous materials, acknowledge what these materials actually are, learn the shipping process and stay away from common problems when it comes to special mailing. 

What Are Hazardous Materials?

If you’re an eCommerce entrepreneur or need to send hazardous materials for any reason, it’s vital to know what items are considered hazmat. According to the United States General Services Administration, hazardous materials are substances or chemicals that pose a health hazard, physical hazard or harm to the environment. These types of materials are defined and regulated by many U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). 

To aid in highlighting what form of hazardous materials are inside any container or package, they are broken down into nine classes — each with a coordinating placard. According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, under the DOT, these nine hazmat categories are:

  • Class one: Explosives.
  • Class two: Gases.
  • Class three: Flammable liquid and combustible liquid.
  • Class four: Flammable solid, spontaneously combustible and dangerous when wet.
  • Class five: Oxidizer and organic peroxide.
  • Class six: Poison (toxic) and poison inhalation hazard.
  • Class seven: Radioactive.
  • Class eight: Corrosive.
  • Class nine: Miscellaneous. 

There are more hazardous materials than you might think. Some of the most frequently shipped materials include aerosol spray receptacles, alcohol, fertilizer compounds, bleaches, camping equipment and nail polish. The list goes on and on, meaning that knowing how to identify these items is essential to shipping them properly. 

On top of knowing what items are considered hazardous, it’s also key you understand the difference between hazmat and dangerous goods. Dangerous goods are articles or substances which are capable of posing a risk to health, safety, property and the environment. Generally, these substances pose more of an immediate threat than hazardous materials based on their levels of chemical and physical properties. Many hazardous substances are also classified as dangerous goods, meaning radiation safety and other guidelines apply to them too. 

Although the two terms are very similar, there are different protocols for each that you must pay attention to. We’ll be focusing on the shipment of hazardous materials in this article. 

How Do You Ship Hazardous Materials?

Once you understand what hazardous materials are and their various classifications, your company can identify which items need to be given extra attention when being transported. The Department of Transportation states that no person may offer or accept a hazardous material for transportation unless that person holds the correct registration, and the hazardous material is properly classed, described, packaged, marked, labeled and in good condition for shipment according to regulations. 

In order to keep you and your team safe, here are the proper steps for shipping hazardous materials: 

Step 1: Classify the Hazardous Materials

To begin, ensure you properly complete the necessary shipping paperwork. To complete the paperwork properly, you have to identify the hazardous materials. To do this, look at the item’s safety data sheets — which holds information that the chemical manufacturer provides to share vital details, including the properties of each chemical, the physical health and environmental health concerns and safety precautions for handling, storing and transporting. 

The safety data sheet gives transporters a four-digit ID number, a proper shipping name, the hazard class and the packing group for the product. You can use this information to identify the correct entry on the Hazardous Materials Table. This table contains all the information regarding packaging, quantity limitations and special provisions that may need to be taken. Getting the correct identification is the most important step in shipping hazmat, as all other steps going forward will be based on this information.

Step 2: Figure Out Quantities and Packaging

After identifying and classifying the hazardous materials you’re shipping, pick the proper type of packaging for that classification. There are various packing groups — types of packaging depending on the degree of danger presented by the materials:

  • Packing group one: Great danger. 
  • Packing group two: Medium danger.
  • Packing group three: Minor danger.

The type of packaging will be determined by the packing group the goods being shipped are put in. 

Step 3: Package Your Material

Assemble and package your hazardous goods based on the packaging requirements determined by the classification regulations. Some classifications require special performance packaging — carriers that were created with this dangerous material in mind. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, under the DOT, the four types of performance packaging include:

  • Combination packing.
  • Single, combination or composite packaging for solids.
  • Single or composite packaging for liquids.
  • Intermediate bulk containers.

These shipping containers are specifically designed to hold hazardous materials to keep every operator and transporter safe. 

Step 4: Mark and Label the Package

Next, ensure the package is clearly marked with the correct hazardous materials markings, labels and placards. Find general information on these symbols in a guide done by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. 

Step 5: Prepare a Shipping Paper

A shipping paper contains a thorough description of the hazardous materials, including the identification number, proper shipping name, hazard classification, packing group, quantity number, type of package, emergency contact information and a shipper’s certification. 

Additional steps may be necessary depending on the type of material your company is shipping. Ultimately, the shipping process is all about safety, but precautions don’t stop there. On top of safe shipping, additional protective measures should be taken.

Safety Precautions to Take Advantage of

You can never be too careful when it comes to chemicals, explosives and other hazardous goods. Here are some tips to keep you and your team safe:

  • Wear personal protective equipment like gloves, goggles and a hazmat suit. Ensure each of these items is clean before putting them on.
  • Keep materials in their approved containers or boxes until you can safely unload them.
  • Store material properly and in accordance with their labels. For example, flammable or hazardous chemicals should be stored in a cool, dry place away from heat and sunlight. 
  • Pay close attention to the safety data sheet and follow exactly what it says throughout the entire shipping process.
  • Ensure you and your team have proper training on the hazardous material shipping process and all valuable information.

Taking the time and putting in the energy to fully protect your team will reduce the issues with shipping this type of dangerous material. Sadly, it won’t completely eliminate problems. Although incidents are few and far between, understanding what to do in the case of an emergency can help you act quickly in the face of a problem. And, when an accident does occur, an immediate notification from the carrier is required at the earliest practical moment. These incidents include, but are not limited to:

  • A person is killed.
  • Someone receives an injury requiring admittance to a hospital.
  • The general public is evacuated for one hour or more.
  • A major transportation artery or facility is shut down or closed for one hour or more.
  • Fire, breakage, spillage or suspected radioactive contamination occurs.
  • A release of marine pollutants occurs in a quantity exceeding 119 gallons of liquid or 882 pounds of solid.  
  • A situation exists that, in the judgment of the person in possession of the hazardous material, it should be reported to the National Response Center, even if it does not meet the above criteria. 

The Department of Transportation enforces safety and hazmat shipping regulations for the safety of commercial drivers and transporters across the country. But, when the rules aren’t followed, issues can arise. 

Common Problems with Shipping Hazardous Materials

You are probably shipping a lot of different products, which means mistakes may happen now and again. Whether it’s a misinterpretation of DOT regulations or a lack of guideline knowledge, noncompliance results in a dangerous working environment and large fines. Below are a few of the most common problems with shipping hazardous materials:

Omission of UN Specification Packaging

As previously mentioned, shipping dangerous goods requires specific packaging.  Refusing to use the proper boxes or carriers can increase the risk of spills and contamination.

Improper Marks and Labels

Even though the hazardous materials regulations and labels are extensive and confusing, failure to mark the package with the correct label could endanger your team. Ensure your package is clearly marked with the hazardous marks that correlate with the classification of the products. 

Incorrect Package Closure

The Department of Transportation requires commercial transporters to maintain a copy of the manufacturer’s notification which includes proper closure instructions. The packaging closure instructions must be available upon request, and the guidelines must have been followed when closing the box. 

Failure to Register with PHMSA

Anyone who transports hazardous materials must file a registration statement with the U.S. Department of Transportation and pay an annual registration fee. Without this, it is illegal to conduct hazmat shipping of any kind. 

Poor Training Practices 

The term “hazmat employee” and “hazmat employer” are defined by 49 CFR 171.8. A hazmat employee is anyone who directly affects hazardous materials transportation safety, and a hazmat employer is anyone who uses employees in connection with transporting hazardous materials in commerce. With that knowledge, anyone who falls under these categories of employment must be trained properly on the current regulation regarding hazardous materials. 

The problem for employers and employees who handle hazardous materials is the DOT rules are extensive and, at times, confusing. That’s why accessible and high-quality training is an asset for your team. 

Online, video-based courses on essential safety guidelines are affordable and flexible, allowing companies to train every employee with consistent materials, no matter where people are located. By equipping employees with a library of digital hazmat shipping content, an organization can avoid common problems and ensure the safety of the entire workforce. 

Browse hazmat training options and information here

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