Hazardous Materials: 4 Common Shipping Mistakes

Jan 21st, 2014 | By | Category: Environmental Management, Health and Safety

EHS Journal - Lab Work by Jean Scheijen

People often make mistakes when shipping hazardous materials, and this article provides strategies for hazardous materials offerors in the United States to avoid four common shipping errors:

  • failing to understand regulatory differences between modes of transportation;
  • mistakenly assuming that common articles and substances are non-hazardous;
  • failing to understand the regulatory implications of returned and self-transported goods; and
  • failing to ensure that people who are responsible for shipping hazardous materials are trained and competent.


1. Modes of Transportation

Hazardous material shippers need to understand the different regulatory requirements associated with different modes of transportation (air, highway, water, rail). For example, consider the scenario in which a research laboratory routinely ships non-infectious patient specimens on dry ice with a ground courier, but now needs to use an express air service to deliver a similar package. The shipper might assume that the requirements for shipping via highway and air are the same, but they would be wrong. Dry ice and many common patient specimens are not regulated when shipped by highway, but are regulated when shipped by air; the offeror using air delivery must meet both applicable U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and International Air Transport Association (IATA) requirements.

Now imagine a second scenario in which a shipper hires a freight forwarder to transport cargo overseas via marine shipment and is asked to sign a multi-modal declaration certifying compliance with International Maritime Dangerous Goods (IMDG) regulations. In this case, the offeror would be responsible for compliance with not only the U.S. federal regulations, but international regulations as well.

But what if an employee offers a hazardous material to an express service for delivery to a local business and, because of the short distance, assumes that it will be transported by ground?

Employees should never make assumptions regarding mode of transportation and associated compliance. Rather, they must confirm the mode of transit with the carrier so they can be sure to comply with the appropriate regulations. These regulations include:

  • Ground transportation:  49 CFR Parts 100-185 including specific provisions of Part 177;
  • Domestic air using a non-IATA operator:  49 CFR Parts 100-185 including specific provisions of Part 175;
  • Domestic air using an IATA operator:  IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations;
  • International Air:  ICAO Technical Instructions or IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations (if operator policy);
  • Domestic water:  49 CFR Parts 100-185 including specific provisions of Part 176;
  • International Water:  IMDG Regulations; and
  • Rail:  49 CFR Parts 100-185 including specific provisions of Part 174.

Shippers of hazardous materials should consider developing a written summary of commonly shipped materials, modes of transportation and the applicable regulatory requirements. Shippers must also ensure that employees who are responsible for hazardous material shipping have been trained and are qualified in the application of all relevant regulatory standards.


2. Presumed Non-hazardous

Common items that are potentially hazardous are often offered for transport by employees not traditionally thought of as “hazmat employees.” These shipments may be flying under the radar of the environmental, health, and safety department, and if so, likely have not been examined for compliance implications.

Lithium batteries, for example, are regulated by the DOT as a hazardous material for both ground and air. They are also regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and IATA as Dangerous Goods.  The requirements are complex and highly variable depending upon the size of the battery or cell, whether it is shipped alone or with equipment, and whether it is being shipped by air, ground, or water.  Some carriers may even require special permission before offering certain lithium batteries for transport.

Here’s a sampling of common potentially-hazardous materials often perceived as non-hazardous:

  • Patient specimens
  • Genetically-modified micro-organisms and organisms
  • Environmental samples for analysis
  • Dry ice
  • Batteries (lithium, button, or gel cell)
  • Scientific instruments with compressed gas cartridges/canisters/cylinders
  • Equipment with compressed air chambers or pistons
  • Electronic devices/ computer equipment with lithium ion or lithium metal batteries installed
  • Contaminated medical equipment and devices
  • Pneumatic accumulators
  • Charged capacitors
  • Magnetized materials
  • Devices with fuel cells
  • Engines with fuel

To avoid potential non-compliance, notify employees that there are special procedures for shipping these common articles and substances, and tell them the consequences of mistakenly assuming that articles and devices are not regulated.  Explain that failing to identify these materials and offering them for shipment as common freight can result in severe penalties or serious safety problems during transport, especially by air.  Designate a person, persons, or department for employees to contact when they need to ship materials that may be hazardous, and provide awareness training to all employees who are able to originate shipments.


3. Returns and Self-Transportation

Warehouse, materials management, and receiving personnel often get involved in activities that are regulated without realizing it.

Imagine that a shipping and receiving department accepts a package and discovers, at a later time, that the item must be returned to the supplier. The receiver may not be aware that an item is hazardous and may inadvertently ship it back without following the DOT hazmat regulations.  In this case, the company that returned the good is responsible for the potential repercussions of offering an undeclared hazardous material for transport.

In another instance, a warehouse employee may self-transport a hazardous material for company use from one company location to another without thinking about the applicable shipping requirements.  Depending upon the circumstances, the material may be fully-regulated. At best, it may qualify as a “material of trade” subject to the exception under 49 CFR 173.6.

Hiring untrained couriers to transport hazardous materials and not preparing them properly is another common error.  When hiring any third party, companies must prepare hazardous materials the same way they would if offering them to a major commercial carrier.

Employers often do not consider these scenarios. Rather, they focus compliance concerns on the activities of traditional “shipping” personnel.

To ensure compliance at your organization, look at returns and self-transport activities. Read and understand the Materials of Trade exception of 49.CFR.173.6, address return issues, and scrutinize the use of local couriers.   It is of paramount importance that all materials management, warehouse, and receiving personnel receive hazardous materials awareness training that covers these specific issues.


4. Training and Competency

For a new “hazmat employee,” training is often the first step to becoming a qualified and competent shipper. Training must be provided, of course, but training delivery is not the only step; employers must also verify the competency of their employees before authorizing them to perform hazmat functions.

Due to the complexity of hazmat regulations, it often takes considerable time working with a more experienced employee to become proficient in the understanding and use of the regulations, use of applicable software, and hands-on preparation of shipments.

Imagine an employee who has no previous experience in hazardous materials management being sent to an offsite training class where more than 1,300 pages of federal regulations are covered in a one- or two-day class.  After receiving his training certificate, this employee is made responsible for preparing all hazardous materials shipments without any other internal resources. This is a recipe for future problems.

To ensure that all employees who handle hazmat shipping are competent and qualified, employers should seek experienced hazardous materials shippers to fill this role.  Additional employees should be trained in the regulations in accordance with 49 CFR 172.704, but then work for a period of time under the supervision of the experienced shipper.  The employer should also develop and implement a system to determine the competency of these newer employees (perhaps, a demonstration of understanding and implementation of the rules, combined with an error-free shipment preparation exercise).  Only then should an employer consider the employee competent and qualified and allow him or her to work independently.



You should be able to confidently say yes to all of the following hazardous materials shipping statements that apply to your organization:

  • Employees are able to distinguish all materials commonly misconceived to be nonhazardous including computer equipment with lithium batteries, devices with charged fuel cells, etc.
  • Employees who ship materials are familiar with all of the regulatory requirements that govern the various modes of transportation for both domestic and international shipments.
  • All employees are trained in the proper protocol for preparing items and arranging for transport including shipments by self-transport, shipments being returned to the sender, and shipments being taken by a courier.
  • All employees are aware of the serious consequences of improper shipping including penalties and citations, rejected shipments, damaged equipment and vehicles, and even serious injury or death.
  • Only employees who have demonstrated adequate training, qualification, and competency are allowed to prepare hazardous materials shipments.


About the Author

Doug Graham is a Senior EH&S Consultant and External Training Manager for Triumvirate Environmental. Triumvirate Environmental provides innovative hazardous waste management, compliance consulting services, and field services to higher education, life science, healthcare, and industrial clients across the United States. Its technical services team offers specialized services that include program and plan development, reporting, regulatory training (DOT, IATA, OSHA, RCRA), onsite EH&S support, and multimedia compliance audits. Triumvirate’s trainers have the ability to teach employees how to properly classify, package, mark, label, and document hazmat shipments.

Photograph: Lab Work by Jean Scheijen, Maastricht, the Netherlands.

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One Comment to “Hazardous Materials: 4 Common Shipping Mistakes”

  1. Dr Jaideep Dudhbhate says:

    Useful and interesting

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