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?[box]Listen to the audio version above and subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.
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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.
- Flammable and Combustible Liquids
- Flammable Solids
- 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