Q&A: Shipping Hazmat? Handle With Care

Q: Must a broker or third-party logistics company have its people trained in hazardous materials to actually book a hazmat load with a carrier?

To put it another way, can a broker employee book a hazardous load with a carrier that’s hazmat-certified without that actual broker employee being himself or herself hazmat-certified?


A: Before I can even start to address that question, I need to correct a misconception underlying your question that I think is shared by many people in the industry.

You speak of “hazmat certification” as though it’s a bright-line definition whose presence or absence can be identified by the existence or nonexistence of a particular official imprimatur. That is, one is conferred with some kind of certificate or endorsement from some acknowledged authority recognizing one’s successful completion of a certain standardized training process, much like one receives a diploma from an educational institution or is admitted to some professional roster.

In fact, there’s no such thing. Individuals are “certified” to handle hazardous materials by their employers at the employers’ discretion. Presumably, they’ll have received at least some specialized training in the discipline, but there’s no standard for such training. Nor is there any oversight by government or any broadly accepted private body to ratify or deny such “certification.”

(Please don’t write me to tell me how your company, association or organization offers such “certifications” and that I should accept no substitutes. I’m sure you feel that way, but so do lots of others about their own programs. The fact is there’s no measure formally prescribed by government or widely enough accepted in the industry to single out.)

As for companies “certified” to handle hazardous materials, there isn’t even that much. Carriers self-certify by presenting the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration with insurance coverage required to handle hazardous materials. For brokers and other third parties, there isn’t even that requirement.

Does that mean that any Tom, Dick or Harry can legally handle hazardous materials on behalf of a broker or 3PL? Well, actually, yeah. Does it mean it’s sensible for the broker or 3PL to allow said Tom, Dick or Harry to do so? That’s a whole other question.

Here's what the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has to say on the subject (in part) in its “Guide for Brokers, Forwarding Agents, Freight Forwarders and Warehouses”: “Brokers, forwarding agents, freight forwarders, and warehousers (sic) are legally required to comply with the HMR (Hazardous Materials Regulations, found in the Code of Federal Regulations at 49 CFR Part 170 et seq.).

“Knowledge of and compliance with the HMR is essential for your protection and that of your client(s). In general, each of you may act as an agent for a shipper. If you forward a hazmat shipment, you are not relieved of the responsibility of your actions. That means, if you accept the responsibility (for) hazmat transportation, you are involved and can be held liable for your actions. Even a written agreement with a client(s) will not remove your liability."

Clear enough? Get it right or face the consequences.

There are, to be sure, some generalized guidelines for the kind of training your “hazmat-certified” employees are required to have. You’ll find them at 49 CFR Section 172.700 et seq. But when I say “generalized guidelines,” I mean just that — such things as the security problems of hazmat transportation, accident amelioration, placarding and documentation, all related to the specific type of hazardous material involved.

In other words, the type of training will vary dramatically depending on whether you’re handling poisons, flammables, explosives or environmentally destructive chemicals. One size definitely doesn’t fit all; you need to be up to speed on what’s current, what’s legally mandated, and what’s otherwise necessary for whatever you’re moving.

I know I haven’t really answered your question. My problem is that there’s actually no answer to it. “Hazmat” is simply a generic term encompassing numerous unrelated categories of goods whose only connection is that in one way or another each one can be unusually dangerous — more so than general freight. It will be an unusual employee indeed who can deal with all of them indiscriminately.

One other thing, whatever measure you’re using in your own organization, you need to maintain instructional records for each employee and keep the training current. That is, in fact, required. For the rest, you’re on your own.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C. 29455; phone, 843- 559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.


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