Dec. 29 2006 11:35 AM

Back in the late '80s, a P-I-E Nationwide trucking terminal accidentally caused the residents of a small town to evacuate for a few hours. The reason: One punctured barrel containing a chemical that could be dangerous if touched.


Although incidents like the P-I-E evacuation are rare, the challenges it faced while moving a hazardous material are not, because any company that stores or ships hazmat has weighty responsibilities that go above and beyond the typical material handling move.


However, that doesn't necessarily mean that hazmat handling is always the stuff of which disaster films are made or that it's not worth your company's time to consider moving such materials.


In fact, under most circumstances, many hazmats are no more dangerous to handle than other products, provided you know how to deal with them. With that in mind, here are four things you should know about hazmat care and handling.


All Hazmats are not Created Equal

First of all, it's important to put the term hazmat into perspective. When most people hear or read it, they picture an ominous array of products. However, there are many reasons even a typical household or office product can be designated a hazmat and not all of them are the kind of things that create major news events.


Some products are hazmats because they're more flammable and thus require some extra fire safety precautions, much like the can of gasoline in your garage or basement. Other products are considered hazmats merely because they're not safe to store or transport near another kind of hazmat. This is the case with many oxidants such as those found in household detergents; they throw additional oxygen in the air and shouldn't be near flammable materials. And other products such as poisons are hazmats because they are not safe to store or transport near food.


There are even some products that are considered hazmats only when they're being shipped a certain way. We experienced this several years ago when we had to ship some printers' ink via air. While the ink wasn't a hazmat when shipped on the ground, it was, however, designated a hazmat when airborne.


Handling Hazmats Comes with Instructions (Sort Of)

Hazmat handling has a lot in common with general logistics safety in that most mishaps generally come down to one person committing an oversight or making an error in judgment. That is why frequent hazmat training is not only important but also imperative.


If you ship or receive hazmats, all of your employees who handle them are required by law to take a special hazmat training course of two to four hours taught by one of your employees who has gone through a 40-hour hazmat training course known in the industry as a "Haz Whopper."


The good news is, several privately owned companies do an excellent job of teaching the Haz Whopper, and these · companies are quite easy to find. The Department of Trans-portation (DOT) can put you in touch with several of them.


The bad news is, neither you nor your employees will know absolutely everything you need to when you complete these courses.


In addition to federal hazmat requirements, many municipalities and states have their own hazmat regulations that a general hazmat training course can't cover. And it is your job as the company shipping or handling those hazmats to find out what they are and comply with them. 


In some cases, this means you'll be working closely with the local fire marshall or a local watchdog agency. In others, it means that you may be seeing more of the DOT or another state agency.


Don't Assume it's not a Hazmat just Because You haven't been Told

Chances are, any client that manufactures a hazmat will tell you it's a hazmat before asking you to store or ship it.


However, considering that a lot of innocuous-looking products such as copy machine toner can sometimes be considered hazmats, it's always wise for the safety of your company and your employees to conduct your own due diligence, as well.


A good start is to ask your clients for any Material Safety Declaration Sheets (also known as MSDS documents) they have. Much like package inserts for pharmaceuticals, MSDS documents tell you everything you'll need to know about the special care and handling of a particular product, including what happens if said product spills, gets mixed with something else or catches on fire.


Another good precaution is to keep your eyes peeled for any packaging that arrives at your facilities with a diamond and four numbers on the outside a diamond is the international symbol for a hazmat, and the four numbers accompanying it are a United Nations code.


And if you want to be even more cautious, take the time to learn what each color diamond means. By knowing that a red diamond means flammable and a green diamond is a symbol of an oxidant, you'll at least have a head start for knowing how to segregate and protect these products and any others you might have on-site.


Hazmat Handling

doesn't have to be an All or Nothing Approach Because hazmats have so many different categories and sensitivities, there is no "one-size-fits-all" description for working with them.


Some hazmats require an infrastructure investment. For example, if you store flammables for any length of time, you'll need to create a "red room" with extra sprinklers and different kinds of ventilation and invest in special material handling equipment that doesn't throw off sparks. 


Others merely require that you engage in more outbound paperwork (hazmats must be listed first on any shipment), that you placard trucks properly and that you comply with general DOT regulations.


And some, such as radioactive materials or compressed gases, have the potential for especially grave consequences if they're mishandled, which is why they're best left to specialized companies whose core competency is working with such products. (This article does not even begin to recommend that you consider handling such hazmats.)


As a result, your company may wish to consider taking a more targeted approach to hazmat shipping and handling, as many of the world's leading shippers do. ·


Such an approach may consist of limiting your hazmat handling to certain terminals or facilities. My company, for example, currently restricts its hazmat handling to specialized facilities in Kentucky and Illinois, where we have red rooms.


Or, it may consist of choosing to handle only certain kinds of hazmats that are not incompatible with other products you are receiving and moving. For example, if you're working with a gourmet food company, you may wish to rule out handling poisonous hazmats.


The important thing is that you have a reasonable comfort level with any hazmat you choose to move and manage and with the employees, facilities and terminals you're trusting to help you. Then again, that's an important rule of thumb with any product or raw material you move.


Ron Shamlaty is vice president of marketing communications for APL Logistics. For more information, visit