Safety-conscious motorists tend to fixate on the trucks with the scary hazmat danger warnings. But hazardous goods haphazardly stowed in unmarked trucks could pose a far bigger threat.
Drivers, beware. That tractor-trailer blowing by you on the highway may have none of the usual warning signs—those ominous hazardous materials placards, for example—but it might nonetheless be carrying hazardous materials. Worse yet, those materials may have been improperly packaged or even loaded in such a way as to create a dangerous and volatile mix. Amidst a worsening shortage of experienced hazmat professionals, the task of shipping hazardous goods sometimes falls to workers who aren't trained for the task. And their ignorance could have deadly consequences.
In fact, the federal government has become so concerned about the problem of improperly packaged hazardous goods that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is partnering with private industry to address the problem. Last year, the DOT signed two separate training- and recruitmentrelated agreements with the Council on Safe Transportation of Hazardous Articles (COSTHA), an industry association devoted to promoting regulatory compliance and safety in the transportation of hazardous materials.
Return to sender—but not like that!
Ironically, the shipments that have the DOT so concerned are not the large-volume loads of regulated materials shipped by chemical or paint manufacturers and distributors to retail locations. Rather, they're the occasional small quantities of hazardous materials being returned to manufacturers by retail stores and similar outlets—in other words, those moving through the reverse supply chain.
In most cases, the problem can be traced to simple ignorance, or at least a lack of training. At a big chemical company, shipping hazardous materials is left strictly to the experts—usually an in-house staff of hazmat regulatory compliance specialists. At a neighborhood hardware store (or even at many big box retailers), however, the person packaging up a hazardous product for return may not be a trained hazmat employee. That clerk may not even realize that the product in question is a hazardous material—many people are unaware that common household items such as perfumes and fragrances, aerosols, paints and coatings, and gasoline-fueled appliances qualify as hazardous materials and may pose hazards in transportation.
"It's an issue that people don't really like to discuss," says Robert Heinrich, transportation safety adviser for Novartis Pharmaceuticals and vice president of COSTHA. "The magnitude of this issue is fairly large," he adds. "It happens more often than people might think."
Heinrich says a common scenario goes something like this: After trying out a newly purchased gas-powered hedger or leaf blower, the consumer decides it's malfunctioning and returns it to the store—with gas still in the tank. The store employee tosses it in a box and ships the tool back to the vendor, not realizing that the tank contains highly flammable gasoline.
"You'd be surprised at how some items are returned," Heinrich adds. "We've seen things like lighter fluid shipped in banana boxes."
To address that issue, the DOT and COSTHA are launching an initiative to investigate the scope of the problem and to educate companies about the potential risks involved in returning goods. "The industry has established an excellent record for regulatory compliance and safety in the distribution of hazardous materials, including consumer commodities, from the manufacturer and distributors to the consumer," says COSTHA administrator John Currie. "We now need to candidly examine the reverse logistics process where the person packing the returns may not be a trained hazmat employee, the packaging may not be the same as when it was originally shipped, and the person preparing the returns may not even be aware of the hazards associated with transportation. Through this partnership [we] can openly discuss the issue and provide solutions to enhance transportation safety."
The hardest job you'll ever love
As daunting as it may seem, solving the returns problem looks downright easy compared to the other challenge facing the industry: a worsening shortage of career hazmat professionals. The industry has seen an exodus of experienced senior-level hazmat professionals in recent years. According to COSTHA, many of these senior people are being eased out the door with accelerated retirement packages offered by corporations eager to trim their payrolls. Sometimes, their responsibilities are handed over to entrylevel employees. Other times, they're given to managers who oversee a loosely related environmental, health, or safety function—many of whom lack the time or the resources to devote to their added responsibilities.
The problem is not unique to the United States; the scarcity is being felt worldwide. At a recent meeting of the UN Subcommittee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods, officials from the Netherlands submitted their concerns regarding a decline in the number of experts on dangerous goods transportation regulations, not only on the side of government but also within industry.
"It's a global problem," says Heinrich. "There is a real gap in career development for hazmat management professionals. A lot of folks don't want to get into our industry."
What really has COSTHA and the DOT worried is the problem Heinrich alludes to—the difficulty attracting smart young talent. There are a number of reasons for that. Part of the problem is the increasing complexity of transportation regulations and the potential for criminal and civil liability incurred as a result of errors or omissions. Perhaps a bigger obstacle is the general lack of management recognition. Top management tends to focus on revenue-generating functions like sales and marketing, often at the expense of "cost avoidance" areas like regulatory compliance, which means promotion opportunities may be limited. That lack of a career path has hobbled efforts to attract qualified management candidates to the hazardous materials profession.
To burnish the profession's image, COSTHA and the DOT signed a partnership agreement late last year to work together on a public awareness campaign. Their mission will be to enhance recognition within companies, the industry, and the general public for those involved in hazardous materials management. Among other initiatives, the groups say they will look at organizing award programs within both the private sector and government.
But initially, COSTHA and the DOT will focus on getting the word out about the field to as wide an audience as possible. "We're looking to find qualified professionals almost anywhere," says Heinrich. "We really need to enhance the career of the hazmat professional. It's important to public safety, especially following 9/11."
Currie says he's encouraged by the DOT's receptiveness to COSTHA's proposals, noting that the agency's willingness to cooperate with private industry has come as a pleasant surprise. The DOT is becoming much friendlier to work with, he says. "The fact that we've been able to negotiate these two agreements with the DOT is a sign that they want to work with industry."
About the Author
John Johnson joined the DC Velocity team in March 2004. A veteran business journalist, John has over a dozen years of experience covering the supply chain field, including time as chief editor of Warehousing Management. In addition, he has covered the venture capital community and previously was a sports reporter covering professional and collegiate sports in the Boston area. John served as senior editor and chief editor of DC Velocity until April 2008.
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