Hazardous materials present a risk at almost all the stops along your supply chain. Items that are explosive, flammable, corrosive, poisonous, radioactive and more can present challenges during ground delivery, warehousing, ocean transport—even at the final destination, where mislabeled hazardous materials can harm the receiver. 

In the worst case scenario, undeclared hazardous materials could lead to a shipping line placing unknowingly reactive substances near each other for an ocean voyage, which could cause an explosion at sea. 

In order to ensure safe handling and delivery of hazardous materials via ocean freight, there are five things you need to be aware of.   

Mislabeled or undeclared hazardous materials can also net you huge civil penalties. However, understanding these five principles will help you stay compliant and steer clear of these penalties when shipping hazardous materials via ocean freight. 

 Let’s start with the fundamentals: Recognizing hazardous materials in your shipments. 

Tip #1: What’s Considered “Hazardous” Might Surprise You 

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), an agency of the Department of Transportation, regulates the transport of hazardous materials within the United States. PHMSA classifies hazardous materials into nine categories for domestic transportation (more on international shipments in a moment!):  

  • Class 1 – Explosives 
  • Class 2 – Flammable gas, non-flammable gas, poison gas 
  • Class 3 – Flammable and combustible liquids 
  • Class 4 – Flammable solids, spontaneously combustible, dangerous when wet 
  • Class 5 – Oxidizers, organic peroxides 
  • Class 6 – Poisonous materials, infectious substances 
  • Class 7 – Radioactive materials 
  • Class 8 – Corrosive materials 
  • Class 9 – Miscellaneous hazardous materials (includes things like lithium batteries) 

Many items that are considered hazardous are obvious. Explosives like fireworks or corrosive chemicals that could eat through the deck of a ship if spilled are easy to spot. 

However, did you know that the following materials may be considered hazardous?  

  • Exit signs – Some of these signs contain trace amounts of radioactive materials,  which classifies them as Class 7 hazardous materials. 
  • Paint – Because it can be both flammable and corrosive, many types of paints are considered Class 3 and 8 hazardous materials. 
  • Nail polish – Nail polish can be highly flammable, making it a Class 3 hazardous material.  
  • Perfumes – The same is true of perfume, which is also flammable.  
  • Aerosol sprays – All aerosol sprays fall into Class 2 (Gases), and may also be considered corrosive (Class 8) or poisonous, such as in the case of insect spray (Class 6). 

If you have any questions on whether or not your shipment would be considered hazardous, your best bet is to review the hazardous materials table found in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations and talk to your freight forwarder for specific advice. 

And while we’re on that topic . . .  

Tip #2: Give Your Freight Forwarder as Much Information as Possible 

When you call your forwarder about a potential hazardous materials shipment, the first thing they’ll want to know is if you have a safety data sheet (SDS) on the product you’d like to ship. 

Note: An SDS may also be labeled as a material safety data sheet (MSDS) or a product safety data sheet (PSDS).  

If you have an SDS on the materials in your shipment, that will give your forwarder all the information they need to help you prepare your shipment, including things like: 

  • The properties of each chemical in the product.  
  • The physical, health and environmental health hazards. 
  • The protective measures that need to be taken. 
  • Safety precautions for handling, storing and transporting the chemical. 

With this information in hand, your forwarder will be able to give you quick answers on how you can ship this particular material, how to package it, how to label it properly and how much shipping will cost. 

If you don’t have an SDS, your forwarder will likely ask for:  

  • The UN number – A four-digit number assigned by the United Nations to identify hazardous materials. 
  • The proper shipping name – The standard technical name to describe the item’s hazardous properties and the composition of dangerous goods. 

From there, your forwarder can help you with the research you need, although it may take a little longer without the SDS. 

Pro Tip from Alicia Haro, Certified Hazardous Materials Expert & Process Performance Supervisor, Approved Freight Forwarders: Securing documentation is especially important when you’re purchasing items from a third-party vendor. If you suspect that the materials your vendor used may qualify your shipment for hazardous material classification, get as much information from them as possible. The penalties and consequences are steep, so you’re better safe than sorry. 

Once they have all the right information about the contents of your shipment, your forwarder can help you with two elements crucial to compliance: the labeling and the documents that accompany your shipment. 

Tip #3: Labels and Documents Matter—Big Time 

Mislabeling and incorrect documentation are two of the biggest mistakes we see shippers make with hazardous freight.  

All shipments containing hazardous materials need: 

  • Hazmat placards on the outside of the shipment, which provide crucial information about the cargo to ensure proper handling and placement. 
  • Documentation on the bill of lading regarding the type of materials the shipment contains. 

A good freight forwarder will help verify that these two requirements are in place before your shipment is transferred to a shipping line. However, verifying that these items are complete when they leave your location will minimize any delays or hiccups. 

Pro Tip from Alicia Haro, Process Performance Supervisor, Approved Freight Forwarders: Many of our customers pre-stamp their boxes with the UN number and proper shipping name. This helps to expedite our verification process because we can confirm the contents against the paperwork and the placard. However, it’s important to know that a stamp doesn’t take the place of the placard. You still need official placards on the outside of your shipment to stay fully compliant. 

Tip #4: ORM-D Is Phasing Out 

If you’ve been shipping items like aerosol cans, perfume, paint and more products under the ORM-D designation, you should know that it’s phasing out. This designation was originally created for consumer products that were shipped in smaller quantities. These shipments were considered limited hazards due to their form, quantity and packaging. 

Going forward, instead of moving under the classification of a “consumer commodity,” these shipments will now be labeled as “limited quantity.”  

Although this may not change much more than how you label your shipments, double-check with your freight forwarder to make sure you stay compliant into 2020.  

Tip #5: The Destination and the Shipping Method Can Affect the Classification 

In this article, we’ve been largely discussing domestic shipments that travel via ocean freight. You should know two things: 

#1: International hazardous materials regulations are different. 

While domestic shipments are regulated by the PHMSA, international shipments are overseen by the United Nations, which refers to hazardous materials as “dangerous goods.” 

If your shipment is headed for an international destination, make sure you familiarize yourself with the requirements to ensure compliance. 

#2: Air freight has its own set of regulations, as set forth by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Although there is some overlap, some items that can go by ocean freight, such as dry ice, are not permitted for air cargo transportation.  

Although it’s important to be aware of these differences, a good freight forwarder should have experts on staff who can guide you. These experts can help you decide on the right shipping method, labeling and documentation you’ll need, based on the contents and destination of your shipment.  

Keeping Your Supply Chain Safe—and Your Company Compliant 

At the end of the day, when it comes to shipping hazardous materials, your best bet is to keep informed so you can stay ahead of the game. Know exactly what you’re shipping, and gather as much information about it as possible. Make sure everything is marked and documented correctly—and declared. That’s the best way to keep your entire supply chain safe and avoid costly penalties. 

Need help shipping hazardous materials? We’d be happy to assist. Simply reach out to us. We’ll put you in touch with our experts who can help you with labeling, documentation and shipping methods—and answer any questions you have. 

Talk to One of Our Haz-Mat Experts Here


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