Is America's Hazmat in Good Hands?
Yes, for now. But the world will need a new crop of dedicated dangerous goods professionals to ensure hazmat reaches its destination, safely and on time.
- By Roger Marks
- Feb 13, 2018
I've never met a dangerous goods professional who told me he or she dreamed of managing hazardous cargo as a child. I've never met one who majored in "Hazmat Studies" in college or who even thought much about hazardous materials before taking the job.
Hazardous materials management, as it turns out, is a career many come to without necessarily meaning to. Because of their talents, reliability, achievements, and other qualities, they have been entrusted with protecting employees, property, and the public from the risks posed by materials that have the potential to explode, set aflame, corrode steel, poison, and otherwise damage human health and the environment. Hazardous materials management is a huge responsibility, and those entrusted with it take it seriously.
I've met dangerous goods professionals from all 50 states and from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, and China. I've spoken with hundreds more stationed across the globe. They are analysts, engineers, chemists, geologists, project managers, lab managers, plant supervisors, coordinators, specialists, technicians, and more. They hold various hard-earned certifications, licenses, and credentials, and they all share one thing in common: They've stumbled upon a field of great importance, one that impacts the safety and well-being of their employees, the public, and workers throughout the supply chain.
Once these chosen few professionals enter the world of dangerous goods, most never leave.
Who Are America's Hazmat Shippers?
Professionals who ship hazmat and hazardous waste perform a job that is integral to life on this planet, yet most of us never think about the work they do. Thanks to their dedication and in-depth expertise, we mostly don't have to.
For the uninitiated, dangerous goods professionals are involved in securing, shipping, transporting, or managing dangerous goods, called hazardous materials or hazmat by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). In the simplest terms, these materials come in nine hazard classes: Explosives (1), Compressed Gases (2) Flammables (3 and 4), Oxidizers and organic peroxides (5), Toxic and Infection Substances (6), Radioactives (7), Corrosives (8), and "Miscellaneous" hazards, including lithium batteries (9).
In other words, it's mostly stuff you can't send through the mail. Except when you can, that is, as with limited amounts of some materials from nearly every class. Every rule has its exception; you learn this fast in the world of dangerous goods.
Some of these exceptions, such as special rules for limited quantities of hazmat and "consumer commodities," are crucial in delivering every day goods such as medicines, antifreeze, nail polish, cologne, aerosol cans, charcoal, lighters, and much more, reliably and at a cost we can afford.
Dangerous goods management is a vocation in which the meaning of words matters. In an era in which reality itself often seems up for debate and concrete truths are hard to come by, this is no small thing.
The day-to-day job of managing hazardous materials also requires and rewards an excruciating attention to detail. Hazmat exceptions and exclusions are just one example. From the required order of elements on the shipping paper to closure instructions for packaging to hazard labels with strict design standards, leaving out details is something hazmat professionals will not abide. They can't afford to.
Depending on the situation, missing a detail could lead to injured workers, a rejected shipment, a package leaking in transit, highway closures, emergency landings, response costs, future liability, civil penalties from U.S. DOT and other agencies, or worse. With DOT penalties for hazmat mistakes now above $78,000 per day, per violation, even small mistakes can be costly.
What's It Take to Be a Hazmat Professional?
First, no worker—manager or not—may perform any function related to hazmat transport without the proper hazmat training. Under U.S. DOT regulations at 49 CFR 172, Subpart H, hazmat shipping professionals must complete a rigorous training program that addresses critical elements laid out by regulators. In addition, professionals must complete a full review of that training at least once every three years.
Managing hazmat shipping takes the emotional muscle and managerial skills to keep warehouse shipping employees motivated, on task, and working safely. DG professionals are primarily responsible for protecting the employees under their supervision—providing guidance and training, onboarding new hires, and overseeing hazmat packaging and handling on site.
Dangerous goods professionals also have a more bookish, scholarly side. They must file timely and accurate reports to DOT and other regulatory agencies, review obtuse rulemaking documents to prepare for changes that may impact their shipments, and ensure that every step of the hazmat pre-transport process is done in compliance with the regulations.
That last step can entail classifying and naming the material, selecting authorized packaging, choosing the right marks and labels, preparing or certifying documentation, and seeing to it that employees properly carry out their responsibilities.
Last, hazmat pros need an endless reserve of patience—the rules are complex, and even the vocabulary isn't always reliable. "Hazardous materials" is DOT's term. EPA's hazardous waste program uses "hazardous waste," other EPA programs use "hazardous substance," and OSHA goes with "hazardous chemical." All of these terms may apply to the contents of a container, sometimes all at once. And that's to say nothing of the international requirements that global shippers must reckon with.
That patience is tested often. The hazmat rules are constantly under construction, with a new requirement or restriction always on the horizon. Following these rulemakings through the maze of self-referential, byzantine legislative and administrative processes is a major challenge.
Where Are Tomorrow's Dangerous Goods Pros?
All dangerous goods professionals have one last thing in common—they're not getting any younger. As shipping processes and decision-making become more automated, as we look toward a future of automated vehicles and "smart" industrial equipment, we must question who, if anyone, will step up to replace today's dangerous goods professionals.
Many of the pros now counting down to retirement are understandably anxious about handing off the responsibility for hazmat safety—especially given the skill set and dedication needed to do the job right. When hazmat transport is not done right, the consequences can be lethal, so it's crucial that organizations start recruiting and grooming the dangerous goods professionals of the future today.
Even if businesses foresee increased reliance on technology as a solution, teaching a software program to ship hazmat would mean not only developing a logic capable of navigating and applying the rules, but training it to bend or re-evaluate that logic when needed to solve problems the way hazmat professionals do every day. And any program or application we create to solve our problems is only as smart as those who program it.
Today's hazmat professionals have a wealth of knowledge and expertise to impart, but they need someone to impart it to. In recent years, hazmat industry groups have started initiatives to develop partnerships and create new resources for those interested in entering the profession.
Moving forward, two things are certain—humans will continue to need hazardous materials for energy, for health, for transportation, and more, and the world will need a new crop of dedicated dangerous goods professionals to ensure that hazmat reaches its destination, safely and on time.