Hazardous journey

Hazardous journey

Every day, an average of 800,000 hazardous-material shipments take place in the U.S., providing a potentially tempting target for terrorists bent on disrupting America's supply chain. That's why the Department of Transportation since last September has required virtually all haulers of hazardous materials to create a security plan that assesses their risks, evaluates their transportation routes and outlines contingencies for various kinds of emergencies. Companies also are required to train all related employees about hazardous materials and their security risks.

Until recently, the DOT has focused on spreading the word about these new requirements, not enforcing their compliance. That's about to change.

"The word is out, they will start enforcement shortly, probably in May," said Alan I. Roberts, president of the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council, a nonprofit, educational organization that promotes safety in transportation of hazardous materials and dangerous goods.

"We've been making sure people know the regs are out there. Now we are slowly beginning to enforce them," said Joe Delcambre, a public-affairs specialist at the DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration, which administers the regulations. "Our field inspectors are finding many companies are still not aware that this security requirement exists."

Hazmat shipments are primarily carried by truck and include a range of essential fuels, medicines, chemicals and agricultural fertilizers. Although hazmats play a key role in industry, identifying them and understanding their risks can be a challenge, especially for employees without training in chemistry.

"Products such as perfumes, food flavorings and bathroom cleaners are hazmats when they are shipped in bulk," said Donna Edminster, senior transportation regulatory specialist at Rhodia Corp., a manufacturer of specialty chemicals. "If fingernail polish remover is in a drum, it is hazmat. But when it is packaged in smaller quantities, it only complies with some aspects" of hazmat regulations. Likewise, "Coca-Cola, as a final product, is probably not hazardous, but some components of Coke, such as phosphoric acid, are hazardous" when found in higher concentrations than in the soft drink, Edminster said.

Hazmat manufacturers and shippers support the new DOT initiative, recognizing that something must be done to guard against a potential disaster. "The industry has been working very hard to make hazmat shipments more secure," Edminster said. "Everyone is aware that security is an important issue. People obviously understand there is a need, and they are complying." Roberts said the DOT "has been very careful; they have given people time to get their programs straight. There has not been a great howl. Most companies have recognized that these are standards that they can live with."

Companies do not send their security plans to the DOT. They merely have to have them in place if a DOT field inspector pays them a visit. Beyond random spot checks, the DOT will soon visit some companies whose records suggest a possible problem enforcing hazmat safety standards. "We'll glean statistic information from our database about hazmat-report accidents or incidents at a company," Delcambre said. "If we see a more than normal number of incidents, we can identify a problem - and pay them a visit."

A key component of DOT-required security plans is "a comprehensive, detailed inventory of all your chemicals that are hazardous," said Jeffrey Starr, vice president of marketing at 3E Co., which provides a range of hazmat-compliance services. For each hazmat a company transports, it must attach a Material Safety Data Sheet - required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration - along with the usual shipping papers. All these documents, along with the security plan, are subject to inspection by the DOT. Finding the right Material Safety Data Sheet, when a DOT inspector makes a spot check, can be a challenge.

"The problem is, the MSDS may go in a binder that goes on a shelf. But the chemical may also have been on a shelf for years before it is transported," Starr said. When the chemical ships, the right MSDS must be retrieved, and attached promptly to the shipment.

Another complexity is that the various federal agencies responsible for hazmat safety have different definitions of risks. "Each agency has a different definition of toxic," said Daniel Levine, a consultant in chemical product safety and president of Product Solutions LLC. "The regs are all over the place" - and companies must define hazmat risks differently for the DOT than for other agencies. For example, OSHA, which regulates the use of hazmats in the workplace, defines "flammability" as a flash point of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while the DOT defines "flammability" as a flash point up to 149 degrees.

"The same package may have a DOT diamond for 'flammable' but an OSHA warning for 'combustible' " - which is a less-significant hazard than "flammable," Levine said. "It can be confusing. In addition, many things that are labeled as hazardous in the workplace are not labeled as hazardous in transportation. The DOT addresses immediate hazards. It does not regulate carcinogens or other irritants. After all, very few things do not cause irritation. It would be a nightmare if the DOT tried to regulate irritants. The DOT regulates things that are flammable, corrosive; products that oxidize, and toxic materials."

Classifying each DOT-related hazmat and its risks involves a "very demanding skill," Starr said. "For each chemical, you need to document all the risks and hazards. What are the dangers if someone breathes it? What are the dangers if someone touches it? Or if someone inhales it? There are millions of chemicals, and it is hard to categorize some of them."

An appealing aspect of the DOT's approach has been its flexibility. In last year's rule-making process, "The public comments convinced us that flexibility was the right approach, rather than one-size-fits-all," Delcambre said. "There are many different kinds of companies, and we give them general guidelines."

"The DOT standards are performance-oriented," Edminster said. The DOT standards set goals but not detailed methods for achieving them. "The standards say 'Do this or do that;' but not how to do this or that. For example, the standards say, 'Prevent access to your site,' but not, 'You must have fencing to prevent access.'"

Edminster agrees with the DOT that it makes sense for companies to choose the most appropriate way to reach their own goals. "How can I have fencing if, for example, there is water on three sides" of my plant? "This way, companies can develop a plan based on their individual needs and situations," he said.

In the absence of such specifics, some uncertainty will remain, at least until word spreads about exactly how the DOT is enforcing compliance. "There is uncertainty in industry about whether (companies') plans will live up to the DOT standards," Edminster said.

Moreover, DOT regulations are expected to evolve - and possibly become more demanding. "It is a continually evolving system. The DOT will put out more rule-making," Edminster said.

He added that the rules eventually could encourage companies to use such technological advances as GPS tracking and remote shutoff of engines. Increased use of "safe haven" for some highly hazardous hazmats is also possible - much like the Defense Department's secure areas available for shippers of explosives, Edminster said.

A greater uncertainty is whether the DOT will maintain long-term control over hazmat transportation security. "Some people think that this function should be given to Homeland Secur-ity," said Roberts, referring to that agency's mission to protect against terrorist attacks.

"Some Homeland Security staff take the view that anything having to do with security is their responsibility. But we believe that security compliance is an extension of safety compliance. It should be managed by the same organization that deals with hazardous-materials safety."

In addition, he said, the DOT's hazmat-security rules have "pre-emptive effect" over regulations enacted by states, counties and local jurisdictions," Roberts said. But if hazmat security were placed under Homeland Security, "we would be thrown to the mercy of 30,000 local jurisdictions. Homeland Security has a different philosophy. They want to encourage" the jurisdiction of local authorities. If every local jurisdiction had the right to enact its own hazmat security regulations, "it would be chaotic."

Predictably, the DOT rules have expanded demand for third-party providers of specialized hazmat security services. "Companies face two conflicting pressures," which helps companies prepare, evaluate and carry out DOT-mandated plans, 3E's Starr said. "On the one hand, companies are under enormous economic pressures. They are understaffed and overburdened. On the other hand, they are under great pressure to do more - with less."

Although the DOT's security plan has been widely welcomed, it represents still another burden. "Companies may have environmental health and safety staff," Starr said. "But compliance involves chasing paper, and you don't want your highly paid people doing that. It's also hard to have your highly qualified people available, on a 24/7 basis" - just in case something goes wrong.