By John F. Di Leo -
On May 11, 1996, 105 passengers boarded a ValuJet flight in Miami, bound for Atlanta. They never made it.
Shortly after takeoff, a small explosion in the airtight cargo hold developed into a fire, which should have burned out quickly, but didn’t. The 27-year-old plane’s crew of five, and all 105 passengers, were killed as the plane plummeted into the Everglades.
Many chalked this up to the dangers of plane travel and the poor maintenance record of ValuJet, which, as a budget carrier, certainly gave plausible grounds for the argument… but it wasn’t a lack of maintenance that caused this crash; it was maintenance by the wrong maintenance crew.
The plane didn’t crash because of bad upkeep or failed systems or old or broken parts. It crashed because a maintenance worker put a box of Hazardous Materials in the cargo hold, and, apparently out of sheer ignorance, did everything wrong.
The box contained compressed gas canisters, products classified as an oxygen generator. When that fire started in an airtight cargo hold, as the theory goes, the lack of oxygen would cause it to burn itself out right away, but with oxygen generators present, that theory couldn’t work out. The box that apparently caused the fire provided its own fuel, defeating the perfectly reasonable safety precautions put in place by the airplane’s manufacturer and the FAA.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to ship hazardous materials. With small quantities of liquids, for example, they have to be properly capped and sealed, encased in the proper, approved boxes, often with sufficient absorbent material to contain a spill, the outer box sealed tightly. With gases, they need to be in approved canisters, with a proper closure, the closure sealed and protected with an outer guard so that jostling won’t cause it to open up and allow the contents to escape. Unless made of a very thick gauge metal, they generally have to be enclosed in an approved box, durable and well-sealed, again to reduce the odds of unintentional discharge. There are such rules for every conceivable hazardous material.
The SabreTech employees who maintained this plane were told to send this partial box of oxygen generators to Atlanta. What a coincidence, this very plane was headed there. So they set the box in the cargo hold and thought nothing of it. They weren’t transportation people; they were just mechanics, so they had never been properly trained on the regulations governing HazMat shipping. It was truly an accident, but such a terrible one that they and their employers were naturally prosecuted for criminal negligence.
Hazardous Materials Regulations
The United States has long had regulations in place for Hazardous Materials shipping. Found, for the most part, in 49CFR 171 through 178, these regulations split Transportation-hazardous materials and wastes into nine distinct Hazard Classes – explosives, compressed gases, flammable solids and liquids, radioactives, toxins, corrosives, radioactives, and lots more. These regulations then provide a HazMat Table to identify each specific product, and sets of rules on how approved packagings should be made, and which ones can be chosen for each type of product, according to its specific type and level of risk.
Generally speaking – yes, there are exceptions, but relatively few – these products must be identified, then packaged in the approved package for the intended mode of transport (there are different rules for truck, rail, sea and air), and then must be marked, labeled and documented according to specific standards. The truck or sea container must often be of approved type, and must often be placarded with those eye-catching diamond signs (the regs call them “square on point” instead of “diamond”) that tell you from a block away whether the product is a flammable liquid, a compressed gas, a corrosive.
Get closer, and a four digit UN number on the placard may tell you more precisely, sometimes even the exact product inside. You’ve probably seen the number 1203 on the road more often than any other; that’s a tank truck of gasoline ahead of you. Spend enough time in this business, you’ll get to know dozens or more by heart, but you’re trained never to trust your memory. Check the Emergency Response Guide (ERG) to be sure.
The regulations spell out all these rules and more – classification, packaging, quantities limits by mode and packaging, even exceptions and exemptions for limited quantities and lesser risks – and they do so in a manner consistent with the worldwide airfreight HazMat system run by ICAO, and the worldwide seafreight HazMat system run by the IMO. These international organizations have cooperated with member countries for decades, standardizing more and more every few years. Today, these regs are closer than ever to being identical, though they’re still not perfectly harmonized.
The Reasons Behind the Regulations
There are lots of government regulations on safety, and many are downright nuts. The EPA regulates water filters because they trap impurities in your drinking water, so apparently they’d rather see you drink the impurities unfiltered than dispose of them in a landfill with the rest of the garbage. A ban on DDT, resulting from a claim that it was bad for birds, has caused millions to die in Africa from malaria as a result. We’ve all seen OSHA rules that are well-intended and often helpful, but often go too far, pricing American locations out of reach for new manufacturing plants.
But the HazMat regulations are different. These are reactions to a special need – the greater risk that many products cause while in transportation, while traveling the public roads, rails, waterways and air currents. These regulations don’t cover all products, but only the ones that pose a special risk in transportation – due to a greater likelihood that they could cause a spill, an explosion, a crash, a fire. If a shipper deals with such products, he must obey these regulations, not only to protect himself and his own property, but to protect the others who share the roads, the warehouses, the yards and ships through which his product will move.
There are two reasons for Hazardous Materials regulations: First is to reduce the likelihood of an incident occurring, and Second is to provide information for the emergency responders.
Ship the product right, in the right packaging and in the allowed quantities, properly sealed and marked, and the carrier knows to treat it with care, knows where to stow or segregate it, knows to give it the proper handling that it requires, whatever its level of risk.
And then if there is still an incident anyway, the labeling and placards, in conjunction with properly prepared and filed documentation, will enable the emergency responders to use the best method for containing and terminating the danger. Do we use water? Foam? Tarp? Do we shut down a block, or quarantine for a mile? It all depends on what the documents and placards say, so they must be chosen with care, by people who know how.
HazMat Training Requirements
U.S. law requires that all employees involved in the classification, packaging, marking, labeling, booking, documentation, loading, and transporting of hazardous materials must have proper HazMat training, covering at least the products they will encounter in their roles, at least once every three years. Go one day past the three year mark without a refresher, and you have to stop. The three year figure is firm.
The IMO – the corresponding ocean regulations – require the same three year timeframe for theirs. And the IATA regs – governing airfreight – have a tighter two year requirement. Again, go a day past the expiration of your last training, and you can ship all the non-haz cargo you want, but you can’t touch a HazMat order until you get that refresher under your belt.
Americans who ship in all modes therefore need three kinds of training – 49CFR, IMO and IATA – and must schedule regular refreshers. Companies suffering tough times may cut back on many things, from free coffee to travel to bonuses, but this is one area in which they cannot cut corners. Everyone defined as a “HazMat Employee” in 49CFR 171.8 simply must be on this training schedule.
Huge chemical companies may have internal training programs, other manufacturers may customize their own approach for the few HazMat products that their employees will encounter. Most others, however, find it most convenient to send their staffs to regularly scheduled seminars offered by trainers who specialize in this field, such as DGI, RTI, Unz & Co, and JJ Keller. And nobody lacking this training had better help out with a HazMat shipment; the law is firm, and with good reason.
How Do We Know?
Generally speaking, if your firm isn’t a chemical company, you don’t have many experts in such matters… but the law still applies to you. The dangers in the transportation system aren’t the thousands of loads properly shipped by chemical giants like Dow, DuPont, BP and BASF, after all; such giants consider this a core competency and know how to do it. The dangers are from the sales office that ships a paint can wrong, the manufacturer that sends epoxy to a satellite office, the buyer who wants to return an unsatisfactory ingredient to a vendor, the promotions department sending a box of free cigarette lighters bearing the company logo, the facilities department closing up a plant and shipping all the contents to a head office before the new tenant needs the site.
Every company, whether in the chemical business or not, needs an internal policy to check every MSDS of every chemical it uses. It’s the easiest thing in the world: look for the Transportation Information section in the MSDS, and see whether it says “not regulated” or not. If it says “not regulated,” then anyone can ship it legally (still, always be careful, of course!)… and if it says anything else, such as the hazmat text “UN1993, flammable liquids, nos, 3, II”… then it can only be shipped by someone who’s had the training, not by anyone else. Require the MSDS check, and you’ll be well along the way to practicing Safety First, as indeed we all ought.
From ValuJet to the Present
In the years since the infamous crash of ValuJet Flight 592 on May 11, 1996, there has been a massive effort in the business community to improve these processes. Companies better understand their obligations under the law; their staffs are more aware of the risks inherent in Hazardous Materials than ever before.
But still there is a natural assumption that if we deal with it at the office, it must not be anything to worry about. We don’t realize that a pressurized can that’s pretty safe at sea level can become an explosive in a pressurized airplane. We don’t realize that this can of touchup paint, this bottle of industrial solvent, could start a fire if spilled inside a truck… we forget that the vapor of some flammable products is more dangerous than the liquid itself.
So we need to do more, in every business, to educate our staffs – our buyers and salesmen, as well as our transportation and shipping/receiving personnel – to keep our companies safe.
As we work to save the American business community in an ever more hostile environment, we must not let such basic safety fall to the wayside. The United States should be greatest manufacturing center on earth, and it can be again. As we walk that road, let’s walk it safely. If we learn from the tragedy in the Everglades, then at least some silver lining will appear in that dark, dark cloud.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. His experience with hazardous materials has taught him to respect the many true experts in the field, talented regulators and trainers who help keep our roads safe for the growing commerce of a free and bustling market!
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