Wow. What a great title. I put soooo much thought into that. Hazardous Materials, or HazMat for short is part of the big, bad, scary side of trucking. Or is it? What are Hazardous Materials, what does it take to haul them, and how dangerous are they?

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First, the technical definition. A Hazardous Material is a substance or material which has been determined by the Secretary of Transportation to be capable of posing an unreasonable risk to health, safety, and property when transported in commerce, and which has been so designated. The term includes hazardous substances, hazardous wastes, marine pollutants, and elevated temperature materials.

Now Todd’s special definition. Hazardous Materials are products that are more dangerous to haul than regular freight, but you’ll probably never notice.

How’s that for short and sweet? Truly, the hardest part about hauling HazMat is getting your HazMat endorsement tacked onto your CDL (Commercial Drivers License). Before 9-11, you could obtain a HazMat endorsement simply by taking a short written test. In todays world of terrorist activity, the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA (yes, the same people who confiscate your fingernail clippers at the airport) requires a driver to go through an FBI background check and fingerprinting before you are able to take the written test.

Other than that, hauling HazMat doesn’t take much extra effort; at least not for the average trucker. You see, most of the really dangerous stuff is hauled by carriers who specialize in that particular hazardous material. Since that’s usually all that they haul, those drivers receive specialized training from their company.

So who’s responsible for what? In short, shippers are responsible for packaging and labeling the product, preparing certified shipping papers, providing emergency response information, and supplying the proper placards to the driver. Placards are those pretty little signs that are required on all four sides of the trailer. There are nine classes of HazMat, plus one extra, all of which get their own placard.

  1. Explosives
  2. Gases
  3. Flammable and Combustible Liquids
  4. Flammable Solids
  5. Oxidizers
  6. Poisons
  7. Radioactives
  8. Corrosives
  9. Miscellaneous
  10. ORM-D (other regulated materials-domestic)

I won’t go into details on these because it’s nearly as boring as watching a PC boot up. Ooo. Low blow by the Apple fan boy. If you still want all the gory details, click here. But please, go get some friends afterward.

The carrier (trucking company) responsibility is to double check the shippers paperwork, refuse any improper shipments, and report any accidents or incidents to the proper authorities.

The driver’s responsibility lays in double checking HazMat labels and markings, refusing damaged or incorrect product, putting placards on the trailer, insuring proper blocking and bracing of the product, safely transporting the product, and keeping the shipping papers and emergency response information in the proper place, which is in the drivers side door or in the drivers seat when out of the truck. For more details on each parties responsibilities, click here, you glutton for punishment.

Now that may sound like a lot to know and remember, but in reality, average truckers like myself have very little knowledge of specific hazardous materials. There are simply too many different types, guidelines, and combinations to memorize. Instead, we are issued HazMat guide books by our companies and taught how to use them. So here’s how it actually works.

You arrive at a shipper and they load your trailer. Although the shipper is not officially responsible for loading the trailer, in my 12-year career I have never loaded any HazMat and don’t ever expect to. Once loaded, the shipper tells you there is HazMat on the load and supplies you with the correct placards. Before I close my trailer doors, I look inside to make sure that nothing looks like it will move around or fall over. Let me take a tangent here.

Although it is officially my responsibility as the driver, I rarely look to see if the product is marked correctly.  For one thing, I can’t open every container or unstack pallets to verify that sort of thing. Secondly, the shipper has given me a certified shipping paper that states that they know what the heck they are doing. They know far more about this stuff than I do, so I’ll just take their word for it. It would be like questioning your IT guy at work.  If the stinking printer starts working, don’t try to verify how it was done. Just give him a manly slap on the buttocks and thank the good Lord above. On second thought, maybe you better leave the butt slapping to the NFL.

Back to the process. After I close my trailer doors, I put the supplied placards on all four sides of the trailer. That is, if they are required. Loads with of very little amounts of certain kinds of HazMat don’t require any placarding. How would I know? Here comes the company supplied HazMat handbook.

Every hazardous material is assigned a number. For instance, paint is UN-1263. That number is required on my shipping papers. I look up that number in my guide book and it tells me what the product is, what type of placards I need (if any), and how to deal with an emergency. What I like to do is put a bookmark in that page and store the book in the drivers side door alongside the shipping papers. That way everything is in easy reach if something horrible happens.

The actual transporting of the product has a few small hassles. For one, all placarded loads must come to a complete stop before crossing any railroad tracks. So please quit cussing the poor driver who keeps stopping on that back road with a million railroad crossings. An even bigger hassle is routing.

There are many tunnels across this great nation of ours that won’t allow HazMat loads. For instance, I-76 in Pennsylvania has a few and Eisenhower Tunnel just west of Denver on I-70 is a real doozy. Since you can’t take HazMat through Eisenhower, you are forced to take US 6 over Loveland Pass, which just so happens to be an 11,990-foot-high goat path full of sheer drop-offs and switchbacks that force you to use both lanes. It’s tolerable in decent weather, but I’d rather get rammed in the groin by said goat than drive it with snow on the ground. Been there, done that. Trust me that it will NEVER happen again.

Another issue with routing is with route restrictions. Cities all across America have certain routes that you must take around or through their city. Cops love to issue tickets for ignoring their signs.

These routing problems aren’t much of a problem for an experienced driver. We know were these places are and can usually avoid them quite easily. It’s the newbie driver that has to watch out. If you don’t know about those tunnels in Pennsylvania and Colorado, you could be in for a lot of extra miles trying to find an alternate route.

To sum up, HazMat scares more people than it should. Sure, every now and then we hear about the big HazMat spill that shut down the highway for hours and hours. I, myself, had one minor HazMat spill which held me up for an entire hour. Accidents happen. However, the vast majority of these HazMat loads get delivered without incident.

And many of these HazMat loads just shouldn’t be feared at all. I mean, really. Who could possibly be afraid of a load of hairspray? Although I suppose a highjacking by a spandex-clad, 80’s glam metal band might be kinda scary…

Photo by V&A Steamworks via Flickr

About the Author
I'm a 22-year truck driver with an interest in tech stuff. I do the Trucker Dump podcast and blog, which is all about life as a trucker. I have also written two trucking books, "Trucking Life" and "How to Find a Great Truck Driving Job."
15 comments on “TD27: Hauling Hazardous Materials
  1. I’ve had my haz-mat since I got my CDL in 1996. Usually, the most hazardous thing on my truck was the leftovers from my refrigerator. I may be driving OTR again very soon, and I’d like to know how you get your routes when you have a haz-mat load. I happened to know about I-76 in PA, and I remember wondering what other way was the driver supposed to go….I didn’t know the “alternate” route for Haz-Mat. Did your company route you? And that Route 6 through Loveland sounds scary as all git-go.
    Not a road I would travel at night for the first time, and certainly not on snowy, icy roads.
    Great blog!

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Sorry for the delay in my answer. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have NEVER had a company tell me which way to run with a HazMat load. In fact, I’ve actually had to call them to inform them their normal routing wouldn’t work. The only way I know is to plan your trip in advance, which is something every trucker should be doing anyway. But how do you know which route to take? My only answer is experience. How did you know about the HazMat tunnel restrictions on I-76 and Eisenhower Tunnel? I think you just have to learn that stuff. When in doubt, ask another trucker before you take off and get in a pickle.

      As for Loveland Pass; been there, done that. Snow-packed roads and all. Not fun. Some of those curves require a tractor-trailer to take both lanes. Let’s just say that I was scared enough, that if I had rolled the truck, I would have stuck to the seat without the use of a seatbelt. And for the record, I knew about the HazMat restrictions through Eisenhower Tunnel. I tried to get my company to route me down on I-40, but they told me to take my chances with the weather. Never again!

  2. says:

    Hi. Very first I need to say that I definitely like your blog, just identified it last week but I’ve been following it since then.

    I seem to come to an agreement with most of the views and opinions and this submit is no exception. completely

    Thank you for a fantastic blog and I hope you retain up the great function. If you do I will continue to browse it.

    Use a wonderful evening.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Glad you like the blog. I certainly love writing it. Unfortunately, my wacky trucker schedule doesn’t always allow steady blogging.

      If you like what you’ve read so far, you might want to go back in the archives & start from the beginning. I’ve got some old posts that I’m pretty happy with that I posted before I had any readers to speak of.

      Also, if you want to stay current with my sporadic blog posts, you may want to subscribe. I won’t be spamming you or anything, but any new post will be delivered to you automatically.

      Again, thanks for your interest and keep up the comments!

  3. Joe V says:

    I just stumbed upon this blog while do a google on Hazmat Restrictions. Today, I received my completed background check and soft copy of CDL with my coveted X. I have been driving since 2006. No a long time by most standards. I am looking foward to next week when I begin hauling Hazmat loads.
    Is there any listing anywhere that is going to identify the restricted routes.
    Strange how birds of a feather seem to flock together, I know Kristy from above on Twitter.
    I shall for certain be following the blog.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Hey Joe V, thanks for leaving the comment. Congratulations on the newly acquired HazMat endorsement. Hope you’re working for a company that pays you a little extra just for having it, even when you’re not under a HazMat load.

      As far as a list of HazMat restricted routes, I’ve never run across one, but quite frankly, after 13 years in the road, I don’t really need it, so why bother looking? LOL

  4. Jas says:

    well written run down on moving hazmat 🙂 for the questions about routing around road restrictions check out this article >>

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Thanks for the link to a great article on GPS truck routing. Now all I need is enough money to actually buy one. 😉

  5. njkatwoman says:

    I got the inbox alert the other day regarding this blog. As always, it was worth another read. I had also blogged about having to take my Haz-Mat written test….I think I blogged it back in 2007/2008…here is the link if you’d like a giggle:

    As for routing, well, I had a haz-mat load a few weeks ago. My company routed me up 77…I saw no signs that said I could not take my “oxygenated gas”, (fire extinguishers) through the tunnels on that route. Still, I pulled over to the shoulder before the tunnel, I had forgotten about those two dratted tunnels. argh! But, saw nothing that I couldn’t go thru, but my GPS unit was having a fit! You know, I did look in my atlas, saw nothing about HC being forbidden on Route 77 in VA, WV. Where do you find your information to route yourself, Todd? It would be very helpful to me to know. I don’t often haul Haz-Mat, because like you stated in your blog, “average truckers like myself have very little knowledge of specific hazardous materials”. So true! Thanks so much for another entertaining, educational read. 😀

  6. Marc r says:

    I work for a fire Department and we have fuel truck that carries less than 500 gallon. What are requirements of people driving the truck. It is a six wheel truck. Does it have to have mudflaps.

    1. Todd McCann says:

      Hey there Marc. I’m not an expert on hauling hazmat, but I’ll take a stab at it. Don’t take my word for it though. For all I know fire departments may have special rules that the rest of us don’t have to abide by… like running red lights for instance. LOL

      My understanding is that any hazardous material that needs to be placarded (those pretty colored diamond-shaped labels) requires the driver of the vehicle to have a hazardous materials endorsement on their driver’s license. Also according to the DOT rules, any bulk container of over 119 gallons of hazmat must be placarded. Fuel is considered hazmat. So like I said, unless the fire department is exempt from these rules, I’d say whoever is driving the truck should have a hazardous materials endorsement.

      As for the mud flaps, well, I’m honestly not sure. I know we big rig truckers can be ticketed for missing mud flaps, but I don’t know if that pertains to trucks of your size. Hope that helps. I’ll be asking my listeners for help on this on a future podcast. If I find out anything new, I’ll post it here.

      Thanks for the query. By the way, didn’t anyone ever tell you not to play with fire? 😉

  7. Brett B says:

    Must be nice to load a trailer with haz and also have your head in the sand. Good luck with a dot officer. I am a hazardous waste hauler non bulk (non tanker). All I do is haul haz waste. I literally cringed reading how you willy nilly trust a shipper to have their shit together. There is so much more to my job then what you are explaining. The rules and regulations alone will make your head spin. Also, if you don’t do it, you probably shouldn’t be writing a article on how it’s done. I inspect every piece that is going on my trailer before even moving to labeling or making entry onto my trailer. I’m inspecting for leaks, cracks, wetness, I’m checking other labels for telling signs of what was possibly in it before. The only label allowed on the piece is a haz waste sticker and the corresponding hazzard class (which may have a in house waste label.) If at that point the shipment is up to my standards I then move to verification of labels and correctness of wording on labels to the manifest. I take a accurate count of everything and double check my numbers. I also verify that the shipping container type is correct on the manifest. If it is a dm on the manifest and I’m looking at a df then either the manifest or the container is incorrect and needs to be corrected. If it’s corrosive and in a dm then it’s definitely wrong and not stepping foot on my trailer. I then begin labeling if and only if the shipper (which happens a lot) doesn’t know what they’re doing. There are regulations for labeling including proper spacing of hazzard class and waste labels. I need to make sure I also have items loaded that won’t tip or fall or will not make me overweight. Hauling totes with liquid also corresponds to weather it will be a hazzard placard or a placard with a un number. There are also some haz waste that cannot be loaded together or near each other. Once loaded I need to insure of load securement. After that turns to paperwork that has to be perfectly to epa and dot standards. Signed in the correct spots and weights and totals. Placarding is the easy stuff but if you don’t know what you’re doing you can mess it up easily. Some hazzards require placards with 1001 or more pounds, some require any amount, some are dependent on liquid amounts and some don’t require anything. I haven’t even got to driving yet. Lol. Now that you have a bomb strapped to your ass, you have to deal with the stupids on the road, dot and scales. Chemical haulers don’t get a ez pass. they have to enter a scale if its open. Good luck out there. Keep the shiny side up and don’t become a statistic.

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