Prevention through compliance

Many of us during our careers will face a scenario involving a hazardous materials accident in our facility. If you haven't yet, then it is due to one of two possibilities. You either have a terrific safety program in place, or you have been extremely lucky. If its luck that's preventing accidents at your facility, then you have to recognize that luck always runs out. Every day that goes by increases the probability that accidents will occur. Compliance with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Hazardous Materials (HM)regulations (49 Code of Federal Regulations) will substantially reduce your probability of serious accidents.

The DOT definition of HM is a material that poses an unreasonable risk to health, safety and property. In other words, if mishandled, it has the possibility of injuring or killing workers.

Federal workplace safety rules are generally regulated by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) through 29 CFR, through specific guidelines concerning hazardous chemicals. Numerous DOT rules occasionally reference OSHA guidelines, so your facility should also be in compliance with the basic OSHA requirements for emergency action plans, a hazard communication program including employee training, and personal protective equipment procedures.

Shipping responsibilities

If you are either going to offer a hazardous material for transportation or actually transport it, you must be aware of your responsibilities. Both shippers and transporters have the same responsibilities to ensure compliance, thus establishing a double check system. "No person shall offer or accept a hazardous material for transportation in commerce," unless it is legal (49 CFR Section 171.2).

Once an individual accepts the above responsibility and is registered with the Research & Special Programs Administration within DOT, if applicable (49 CFR Section 107.601), it is time to focus on the material. HM procedures fall into five separate functions:

Classification. The material must be classified using proper shipping names, hazard classes, ID numbers and packing groups.

Packaging. The material must be packaged correctly.

Communication. Communication of the hazard will be accomplished using four methods:

  • Shipping papers;
  • Markings;
  • Labels; and
  • Placards

Emergency response. Emergency response information must accompany the material at all times.

Training. All employees who handle the safe transportation of HM in commerce are required to be trained, especially employees whose duties include loading or unloading, packing or testing HM, preparing HM for transport, ensuring workplace safety or operating the vehicles that transport HM.

Training must include general awareness training on DOT rules, function-specific training and safety training. This DOT-mandated training is above and beyond any hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER) training required by OSHA under 29 CFR 1910.120.

HM classification

Classification of a hazardous material is undoubtedly the most difficult barrier to compliance. DOT's philosophy is that HM should not be moved until it is correctly identified. Erroneous classification causes several hundred of the workplace-related injuries in the United States every year.

"We didn't know it was that dangerous"

OHSA has addressed the classification problem through the requirement for a HM information system (HMIS). DOT's HM table is the gospel of classification. The material must meet the definition of one of the nine hazard classes (explosive, gases, flammable, flammable solid, oxidizer, poison, radioactive, corrosive or miscelleneous) and be located by proper shipping name on the table. There are two appendices to this table that also must be referenced for an accurate classification. Appendix A lists reportable quantities as per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as spelled out under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund. Appendix B lists marine pollutants as spelled out in 49 CFR 171.8. All tables must be checked to assign the most accurate description to a material before it is offered for transportation. Often the original shipper or manufacturer will be an excellent source of information, but must always be rechecked fo r accuracy.

After the classification has been established, several DOT-authorized packages may be used to contain the material. This is the riskiest of the HM procedures and the most common source of injury. HM in an improper package will cause injury, since the package has not been manufactured or tested for that HM, and is very likely to fail. Occasionally, the DOT will make an exception for small quantities (limited quantities, consumer commodities or many chemicals in amounts that do not exceed 1 ounce, 1 gram or 30 milliliters, as provided under 49 CFR 173.4) from expensive package requirements, but will always enforce the general packaging guidelines found in 49 CFR Section 173.22-24b. This is where rules for compatibility, absorption material and leak-proof containment are found. Spills or leaking packages can be a source of major concern anywhere in the system. Proper containment and cleanup may require special training (see HAZWOPER regulations, 29 CFR Section 1910.120) and emergency resp onse procedures. The best prevention is in initial proper package selection. Package recognition by employees serves a major safety function in identifying potential problems before they happen.


Communicating your hazard to others seems to be common sense, but is often overlooked. Not only is it critical to tell others what has just been placed inside a package, but it is just as critical to teach employees how to recognize hazard warnings and to take the necessary precautions with the chemicals they work with before the package is opened.

Unless an exception has been made by DOT for consumer commodities or materials of trade as defined in 49 CFR 171.8, any amount of HM in any size vehicle must be accompanied with shipping papers that have been properly completed to include, at a minimum, the basic HM description, including:

  • S = Proper shipping name;
  • H = Hazard class;
  • I = Identification number; and
  • P = Packing group

From a safety perspective, without the paperwork nobody will know the proper course of action in case of an accident, and injuries could become more threatening every second that is delayed.

Generally for smaller packages (non-bulk = <119 gallons="" for="" liquids,="" 894="" lbs.="" for="" solids,="" or="" 1,000="" lbs.="" water="" capacity="" for="" cylinders),="" the="" same="" information="" that="" is="" on="" the="" shipping="" papers="" should="" be="" found="" on="" at="" least="" one="" side="" of="" the="" package.="" in="" some="" cases="" orientation="" arrows="" are="" necessary="" for="" liquids="" wher="" the="" covers="" are="" not="" visible.="" larger="" package="" markings="" will="" entail="" placing="" at="" least="" the="" proper="" shipping="" name,="" identification="" number="" and="" owner's="" name="" on="" two="" sides="" of="" a="" portable="" tank="" which="" is="" less="" than="" 1,000="" gallons="" capacity="" and="" on="" all="" four="" sides="" if="" a="" capacity="" larger="" than="" 1,000="" gallons.="" cargo="" tanks="" other="" than="" those="" containing="" gases="" are="" required="" to="" have="" the="" identification="" number="" on="" all="" four="" sides.="" again,="" as="" with="" the="" smaller="" packages,="" there="" may="" be="" special="" markings="" for="" certain="" hazards="" (ie.="" hot="" or="" inflation="">

Labels are probably the most recognized hazard warning, since they are distinctively color-coded for each of the nine hazard classes. Unless otherwise excepted, small packages will have the appropriate label placed on the same surface as the proper shipping name and within six inches of subsidiary hazard labels. To ensure they can be quickly recognized, labels cannot be wrapped around corners, covered or changed in any way. Several years ago, OSHA acknowledged the value of DOT markings and labels and stated that if the material arrived marked and labeled by DOT standards, it should stay that way even during workplace storage.

The fourth of the communication procedures, placards, are probably the most misunderstood, since they are the most conspicuous to the public because they are visible on roadways. DOT requires any container or transport vehicle containing any amount of HM to be placarded on each side and each end for each of the hazard classes inside. However, DOT includes an exception from placards that states if there is less than 1,001 pounds aggregate gross weight of normally shipped HM in non-bulk containers in a freight container or vehicle, then no placards are required (49 CFR Section 172.504). Selecting the correct placard serves a major safety function, since all emergency responders have been trained to watch for placards from as far out as one-half mile to avoid an unexpected crisis.

Emergency response and training

Emergency response information (material safety data sheets) must not only be available in the workplace per OSHA, but also must accompany the shipping papers for all DOT shipments. Mandatory training must include general awareness information on HM procedures, function specific training for each employee and safety training on how to respond to emergencies.

Accident prevention will happen as a result of regulatory compliance. The purpose of HM regulations is to reduce or altogether eliminate fatalities or injuries due to hazardous chemicals during transportation. The purpose of safety programs is to do exactly the same thing. By building compliance with the appropriate government agencies into our corporate philosophies, we will not only keep ourselves out of trouble, but more importantly, help prevent tragedy from ever happening.


U.S. Department of Transportation Research and Special Programs Administration —

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration —

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This article appeared in the March 2000 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol 11, No. 3, p. 74.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.

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