A Little Learning Is Not Hazardous

May 1, 2002
What you don't know about shipping hazardous material may cost you a lot.

Recently, I read that eucalyptus oil and grapefruit peel oil were among several hazardous materials that, because of improper handling, brought action against shipping companies from the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA).

More specifically, under Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, the folks shipping the eucalyptus oil were fined $59,500. I’m sure the corporate managers were screaming, “You clipped us!”

And the company shipping the grapefruit peel oil had a bitter taste in its mouth after swallowing a fine of $57,000.

Another company shipped four, one-pint plastic containers of rubbing alcohol and the FAA massaged $60,000 out of its hide, plus $82,500 for two, one-pint plastic bottles of denatured alcohol. Ouch, that stings.

This information came to me via Roy Marshall, an expert on shipping hazardous material and president of HazardousMaterials.com. The point he is trying to make is that businesses unknowingly ship hazardous material all the time. And you don’t have to ship large quantities to have fines levied.

I took a look at the Department of Transportation (DOT) Web site, hazmat.dot.gov. It’s not surprising to learn that human error is most often responsible for careless shipping of hazardous material. According to DOT, there are more than 800,000 shipments of hazardous material daily in the U.S. While the DOT cites human error as the primary cause for hazardous-material-related accidents, it appears that a lack of training for employees working with these materials is responsible in about one-third of the incidents.

Maybe it’s a matter of semantics, but I think that saying there is a training issue here is not the right approach. Training is for dogs. Education is for people. Education appears to be lacking in the handling, labeling and transporting of hazardous material. The DOT regulations clearly require certified training (its word) for employees involved with hazardous material. Here’s the tough part: DOT also requires that employees must “comprehend and be able to apply the regulations when preparing, handling or transporting hazardous material.”

In the Proposed Hazmat Transportation Safety Reauthorization Act of 2001, sent to Congress October 10, 2001, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta proposed various enhancements to hazardous material transportation safety, and called for an increase in civil penalty fines from $27,500 to $100,000 per violation. All well and good — but after-the-fact. As I read (or waded through) the law, a redesignated subsection ([b] [2] of section 5115) would “authorize use of $200,000 in fiscal year 2002 and such amounts as are necessary in fiscal years 2003 through 2007, from the Emergency Preparedness Fund account,” to carry out a training curriculum. Again, by my reading, this fund authorizes the secretary to spend “not more than $21,217,000 for FY 2002 to carry out federal hazmat law.”

There is also indicated the use (in 2002) of $5 million for planning grants and another $7,800,000 for training grants, along with $150,000 for monitoring and technical assistance. And toss in a half-million bucks to publish the Emergency Response Guidebook — assuming anyone will read it.

It seems to me that education is getting the pointy end of the stick here. Doesn’t it make more sense (or is that cents?) to spend more of our tax dollars on educating employees so they can understand the complexities and urgency of dealing with hazardous material?

Probably no amount of education could have stopped the mental giant who, in November 2000, mailed a motorcycle gas tank, loaded with three gallons of gasoline, from a repair shop in Arizona, to Portland, Oregon. Nor would it have prevented the guy who last year packed and shipped mercury in a soup can sealed with duct tape. However, authorizing a few million more of those dollars designated for clean-up toward education might help in the future.

Save your company money — whether you ship perfume or fertilizer, both considered hazardous material — and do some educating. If you want to read scary stories, visit hazmat.dot.gov. If you want education, visit hazardousmaterials.com.

Clyde E. Witt, executive editor, [email protected]