Getting Closure on Packaging

Q: A DOT hazardous materials inspector recently asked one of our plants for copies of the "closure instructions" for the UN packaging we use. It is not entirely clear what he was seeking or why.

A: For decades the US Department of Transportation has maintained an incident reporting system, one of the few in the world. This system gathers data from carriers who observe leaks of any hazmat in transit. Some reports involve dramatic failures releasing a lot of product, but a larger proportion identifies minor leakage from the closures on the package. The term "package" includes everything from small bottles to tank cars.

Perhaps an outside force or tampering loosened the closure, but it seems clear that many of the closures were not tight when the shipment left the plant. The inspector's question relates to two DOT regulations. For DOT specification or UN performance standard packaging, 49 CFR 178.2 requires the manufacturer or distributor of hazmat packaging to tell the customer what closures were on the packaging when it was design-type tested, and how they were closed. This often results in a fairly complex instruction including considerable detail.

The corresponding section for fillers is in 49 CFR 173.24(f)(2). This requires you, as the filler, to follow the closure instructions provided by the container maker. The inspector appears to have been asking for your file copy of those closure instructions.

This may be important for technical compliance with the letter of the law, but a more fruitful question on your part is how any such instructions you received may have been blended into your standard operating procedures and function-specific hazmat employee training. In my experience, this is where the disconnect occurs. The instructions may have come in the mail or with the packaging, but the message of how to close the packaging may not have gotten to the production floor where it is needed.

In your own review, therefore, determine whether you got and initially implemented the instructions. Also find out whether the instructions are being followed in actuality. This should be part of your quality assurance, as should a mechanism to know when your packages leak in transit. You need to be able to track back to the closure process if leaks are occurring. You may have to do some digging to get this information, because carriers reporting spills to DOT usually will not send you a copy of the report. You can check at DOT, however, because it is public information.

A very important part of the closure instruction/ education process relates to air transportation. Packages represented by the supplier as being appropriate for air shipping need to meet additional requirements in 49 CFR 173.27. The packaging supplier should give you "relevant guidance to ensure that the packaging, as prepared for transportation, will withstand the pressure differential requirements" in that section. Packaging for air requires most closures for liquids to be secured, in addition to being tightened. You also need to verify whether your product, when shipped by air, needs to include absorbent materials. If so, be sure your instructions to people closing the package include a reference to this material, and that their function-specific training highlights this requirement. If you do not have written confirmation from the supplier or your own test lab that a particular packaging/closure combination has been determined to be proper for air transport, put controls in place to make sure no one ships that package by air.

In short, I suggest you use the DOT inspector's question to prompt your own review of your closure processes, because leaks from closures of all hazmat packaging types are one of the most persistent problems in hazmat transportation. Simple compliance with record-keeping requirements may not be enough to solve it.

Lawrence Bierlein is an attorney in Washington, DC. His practice is devoted to issues involving transportation of hazardous materials. He can be reached at Suite 500, 1101 30th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007, or (202) 625-8355, [email protected]

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