March 18, 2022: Importance of Properly Marking and Labeling Hazmat Shipments

To the regular consumer the phrases hazardous materials or dangerous goods seem to be something they don’t have to think about. Hazardous materials are not just present when dealing with explosives, flammable gases or highly corrosive materials. In fact, hazardous materials have become more a part of our life than most people are aware. They are in our daily consumer products like perfumes, drain cleaners, solvents and most recently in the technology of lithium batteries. It’s hard to imagine going a day without interacting or being in close proximity to hazmat products.

More than 3 billion tons of regulated hazardous materials are known to be transported in the United States each year via truck, rail, airplane and vessel. According to the hazmat summary list of incidents reported by PHMSA in their incident portal, in 2021 over 1,000 incidents regarding undeclared shipments were reported in the United States. An “undeclared” hazardous material is any shipment where hazardous materials are not identified. In other words, there is no visible indication that the package, transport vehicle or freight container contains a hazardous material (e.g., missing the required shipping paper/declaration, markings, labels, or other hazard communication).

Although these undeclared incidents may seem like a large number and the report mentioned above only provides the undeclared shipments that were caught, they are miniscule when compared to the number of shipments those 3 billion tons of hazardous materials convert to on a day-to-day basis in the US. It’s a very safe practice but when things have the potential of going wrong…they really can go wrong.
There are many articles out there providing information on this and one that caught my attention was recently written by STARS Hazmat Consulting: March 15, 2022: Undeclared Hazardous Materials Caught Fire at Port of LA 

Hazardous materials ship throughout our country and around the world all the time, so why is it important to properly mark and label these hazardous materials when offering them for transportation in commerce? Well, it is important because:

  • It informs and provides guidance to handlers and first responders that may be in contact with these materials as it makes it through the supply chain. Not just undeclared shipments but also misclassifying hazmat shipments with the wrong or incorrect hazmat marking or label. This can create confusion and may alert emergency responders to mitigate the wrong type of incident in a spill, leak or fire situation.
  • For loading, storage and transportation purposes some hazardous materials cannot be transported in the same vehicle or need to be segregated in order to prevent comingling if the shipments leak during transportation. Proper marking and label will allow hazmat employees in identifying these hazard classes and follow the DOT’s segregation table of hazardous materials.
  • Often one thing that gets overlooked to save on packaging cost by shippers is the reuse of boxes or packaging. It is the responsibility of shippers who reuse packaging/boxes to remove old hazmat markings and or labels if the new contents being offered for transportation are not hazardous materials identified by those markings and or labels.
  • And finally, another reason for properly marking and labeling hazardous materials is fines and penalties. That’s right, a person who knowingly violates Hazmat regulations (including undeclared & misclassified hazardous material shipments) may result in civil penalties resulting in fines up to $84,425 per occurrence unless…that violation results in the death, serious illness, or severe injury of any person or substantial destruction of property, in which case the maximum fine may be up to $196,992 per occurrence. In addition to the monetary penalties, knowing willful or reckless violation of the HazMat Regulations may result in imprisonment of up to 5 years except if the violation causes a release which results in death or bodily injury to any person, then imprisonment may be up to 10 years.

In my experience the most common reason why hazmat shipments are not properly marked, labeled, are undeclared or misclassified is a shipper’s lack of knowledge or understanding of the requirements needed to declare the hazardous materials. This can be addressed in various ways that include hazmat training, 3rd party audits and by having experienced personnel or contracts with hazmat consulting companies. Other reasons that create more issues than benefits down the road are shippers wanting to get away from hazmat fees and charges from carriers, difficulty in working with hazmat approved carrier and their delivery schedules, and to avoid cost of training needed to be in compliance with the Hazardous Materials Regulations.

All shippers wishing to transport hazardous materials are responsible for complying with the regulations in 49CFR that govern marking and labeling. These regulations ensure that all hazardous material shipments are marked and labeled with specific information in a clear, understand and uniform manner. So, whether you are a manufacturer, shipper, carrier or a regular consumer remember that improperly prepared hazmat shipments increase the risk to everyone in the supply chain. It is our responsibility to ensure hazmat shipments are meeting the requirements provided by the DOT. Lives, safety, property, and the environment all rely on the safe transportation of hazardous materials.

Written by: Guillermo Garcia

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