Hazmat: The buck stops with you

Q: As a hazmat shipper, can I rely on the manufacturer's UN performance mark?

A: The short answer is "no," in the sense that the United Nations (UN) mark applied by a packaging manufacturer only certifies the performance standard to which that unit was built. It in no way assures that the packaging will be sufficient for the use to which you and your customers will put it.

The UN now is looking at performance histories and tests for composite intermediate bulk containers (IBCs), and their examination will have a wider impact on other packaging types.

With the increasing cost of metals and plastics used in hazmat packaging, shippers' purchasing agents have pushed packaging suppliers to lower their prices and often the only way to do that is for suppliers to reduce the amount of metal and plastic in the container. These purchasing agents appear to believe that if the packaging maker puts a UN mark on the packaging, somehow they will be relieved of some or all responsibilities for failures of that package in transit.

Under the UN system, reflected in the regulations of the U.S. and most other nations, a hazmat shipper bears the primary and ultimate responsibility for the quality of its packaging. Compatibility of the packaging and closures with the lading, resistance to weathering and ultraviolet light exposure, and strength to withstand rough handling that is a normal condition of transportation, are exclusive responsibilities of the shipper who buys and fills the package.

A new formal Working Group on composite IBCs will report to the UN Sub-Committee on the Transport of Dangerous Goods in December 2005, about its findings with respect to claims of declining quality in this packaging due to thinning materials of construction, also called "lightweighting." I expect the UN, recognizing how people rely on the UN mark to assure performance, will encourage some improvements and toughening of the performance test criteria in Chapter 6 of the UN Model Regulations applicable to packaging makers.

Chapter 4 of the UN text, however, is addressed not to makers of packaging but rather to fillers. The text declares that hazardous materials must be packed "in good quality packagings... which shall be strong enough to withstand the shocks and loadings normally encountered during transport, including trans-shipment between transport units and between transport units and warehouses as well as any removal from a pallet or overpack for subsequent manual or mechanical handling."

This paragraph goes on to say that the packaging must be filled and closed so as to prevent any loss of contents "which may be caused under normal conditions of transport, by vibration, or by changes in temperature, humidity or pressure (resulting from altitude, for example)."

Recent IBC Working Group discussions reflect a broad shipper failure to adequately consider the normal heat, shock, vibration, lifting, pushing, short dropping and compression of IBCs moving in vehicles and freight containers by highway, rail and ocean transport, particularly as shipments entail removal from containers and reshipment by customers. IBCs also must be designed and built for reuse, a fact to which shippers have been giving inadequate attention.

Anticipate UN actions to toughen performance test criteria for makers of IBCs and other packaging but, more importantly, recognize your primary role and liability for the ultimate adequacy of any packaging you fill and offer into transportation. Include this responsibility in your hazmat compliance program.

Lawrence Bierlein is a partner with McCarthy, Sweeney & Harkaway, P.C. in Washington, D.C. His practice is devoted to issues involving transportation of hazardous materials. He can be reached at 202.775.5560, [email protected]

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