The Mail’s Here!: The Unexpected Complexities of Shipping Hazardous Materials

Libby Meadows

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2021

In this day and age, virtually anything can be shipped anywhere. No matter the destination, an item arrives at our door with only a few clicks. Rarely do we stop to think about how it gets to our door. We often overlook the regulations surrounding each package on its journey. The shipping of simple, everyday items, is fairly straight-forward and regulations more relaxed. However, the shipment of complex items, like hazardous materials, carries additional challenges.

What are hazardous materials?

The United Nations created the Recommendations on the Transportation of Dangerous Goods to help facilitate and ease the shipment of hazardous materials internationally. The appendix provides a list of dangerous goods that require additional regulations. These regulations apply to both domestic and international shipments. This list, as expected, contains may names of chemicals and other products that are difficult to pronounce. When these products are combined they make up many of the average household items we all own. Batteries, alcoholic beverages, and perfume are some simple examples of everyday household items that require additional regulations when shipped. Some of these items are flammable and others contain chemicals that are dangerous. Both would cause harm to the environment and humans if packaged incorrectly and treated like any other normal package being shipped.

Who regulates the shipping of hazardous materials?

In the United States shipping of hazardous materials is regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT creates regulations and training requirements for the transportation of these materials by land, water, and air within, though, or from the United States. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates the packaging and labeling of specimens that contain biohazardous materials. Internationally, countries try to harmonize their laws based on the recommendations from the United Nations. The more aligned each countries law are on the shipping of hazardous materials the easier the process will become. Due to obvious complexities and new issues emerging, the consolidation and synchronicity of these regulations is an ongoing process.

How are hazardous materials regulated?

In the United States the shipping of all hazardous materials must meet the requirements set out in the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR). The HMR states the minimum requirements for the safe transportation of dangerous goods in commerce. It describes how the goods and materials are classified, communicated, handled, and stowed. Shipment regulations are dependent on the type of transportation utilized. For example, the applicable regulations differ whether a product is shipping over land or sea. The packaging and labeling of hazardous materials require strict adherence to these regulations. The labeling and packaging helps shippers and handlers understand the contents of the package and take any necessary precautions. The label notifies the shipper of the material and any additional precautions. The packaging helps keeps the hazardous material stable during transportation. The HMR regulations are important for the safety of shippers, handlers, and consumers alike.

How the process works

The first step in the process of shipping a hazardous material is to obtain a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) and determine if what you are shipping is in fact a hazardous material. One can obtain a SDS from the manufacturer of the transportation type you plan to use. After it is determined that what you are shipping is a hazardous material you need to assess if you have an employee that has the qualifications to package the material. Only certain people are qualified to package and transport hazardous materials. Under US DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations (49 CFR) training is mandatory for all employees who prepare hazardous materials for transportation. As stated earlier there are many regulations that need to be followed to properly ship hazardous materials. Training teaches employees these regulations and ensure that they understand and can comply with the regulations. Penalties for non-compliance are as high as $81,993 per day, per violation.

If you do have a compliance-trained employee, they will next look up the material to determine the authorized quantities, labels, and packaging required of the material. If you do not have a qualified employee you can go to FedEx or UPS to assist you with shipping. The employee will also have to determine if there is any UN specific packaging required for shipping. Once the item is fully packaged the next step is to determine the appropriate labels. A Shipper’s Declaration must be affixed to the outside of the package in an unobstructed area and must be kept on file for a period of two years. Once the package is correctly packaged, labeled, and Shipper’s Declaration is affixed, it is ready to be shipped.

On its face, the shipment of hazardous materials is a daunting process. However, the information necessary to comply with domestic and international regulations is readily available online or at any FedEx or UPS location. As online orders and shipments reach an all-time high, shippers must remain alert to the ever-changing industry regulations. This is especially true when it comes to the shipment of hazardous materials. With these special packages come new concerns and the concerns are met with new regulations. It is important that new regulations are strictly adhered to for the health and safety of shippers, transporters, consumers, and the environment.