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How Undeclared Hazmat Gets Discovered In Transit

Posted on 1/15/2024 by Roger Marks

About 1,500 hazmat transportation incidents per year involve undeclared packages, according to statistics shared by US DOT/PHMSA as part of the “Check the Box” national outreach campaign. In fact, an online search of incident reports submitted in calendar year 2023 reveals more than 2,300 reports on which “undeclared” was selected on Form F5800.1 last year. 

An “undeclared” hazmat package is a package that contains a hazardous material and is offered into transportation without required markings, labels, or shipping documentation to warn of danger. 

With thousands of undeclared shipments posing a potential threat to worker safety, public health, and supply chain security on an annual basis—some may wonder: How could anyone know that a package contains a hazardous material if the package displays no markings, labels, or other indicators that there’s hazmat inside? 

Do package handlers have a special sixth sense for finding hazardous materials? As it turns out, the 5 senses we already know of can be used to great effect to discover “hidden” hazardous materials before they enter transportation or cause an incident. 

Hazmat at First Sight 

undeclared hazmat spill from boxWhen hazmat that belongs in a package can be seen with the naked eye, it typically means something has already gone wrong. When a worker at a package sorting facility sees a wet stain on a fiberboard box, for example, they will put that box aside to be cleaned up, returned to the sender, or disposed of.

When a leaking or damaged package is found to contain undeclared hazmat (e.g., a flammable chemical, paint, etc.), the person in possession must report the discovery to US DOT by submitting Incident Report Form F5800.1.

Video: DOT Hazmat Incident Reporting Requirements

Here are excerpts from two incident Reports in which undeclared hazmat was discovered on sight: 

“Package unloaded from trailer, package handler noticed wet staining of outer pack…inspection found one box with 4 one gallon jugs of coil cleaning, with one leaking contents.”

August 14, 2023 (Report ID: X-2023081529)

“BOX CONTAINING SEVERAL ASSORTED BEAUTY PRODUCTS…CONTAINER LEAKED…UNDECLARED AEROSOL CANS WERE DISCOVERED.” 

April 13, 2023 (X-2023050368)discovering undeclared hazmat by smell like chlorine or gasoline

Sniffing Out Undeclared Hazmat

Ah—I love the smell of hazardous materials in the morning! A distinct scent or odor can be a surefire sign that hazmat is in the air.

Two widely recognized “hazmat smells”—gasoline and chlorine—each led to the discovery of undeclared hazmat in 2023, for example: 

“…box smelled heavily of, and part was suspected to contain, gasoline… package was not opened to confirm. Shipper was contacted and agreed to retrieve the package from the station location the next day…”

June 16, 2023 (Report No. X-2023061393)

“Box damaged, smell chlorine. Box placed in hazmat tote with bag.” 

September 13, 2023 (X-2023091081) 


A Feel for It 

hands on undeclared hazmat package feelFrom time to time, a package handler can just feel when a package contains hazmat. 

For employees who handle, sort, audit, and accept packages on behalf of carriers, part of the responsibility is preventing improperly prepared hazmat packages from entering transportation where they can injure people, damage other cargo, cause supply chain delays, and pollute the environment.

These workers are trained to look out for undeclared hazardous materials and know exactly what to look for—or, in this case, what to feel for

"EIGHT IGLOO COOLERS WERE VERY COLD TO THE TOUCH. WHEN COOLERS WERE MOVED DRY ICE SUBLIMATION WAS NOTICED COMING FROM THE COOLERS…APPROXIMATELY TEN TO TWENTY POUNDS OF DRY ICE COOLING FROZEN FISH SAMPLES…"

January 18, 2023 (X-2023010633)

"EMPLOYEE FELT AN AEROSOL INSIDE OF AN UNMARKED PADDED PLASTIC BAG/ENVELOPE. SHE GAVE IT TO ACCEPTANCE AUDITOR FOR FURTHER INSPECTION AND AUDITOR FOUND THAT THE CONTENTS ARE UNDECLARED AEROSOL CANS." 

April 14, 2023 (X-2023050371)


Shhh… Do You Hear That?

Believe it or not, there are hazardous materials that you can hear inside of a package. 

“PACKAGES WERE RATTLING AND SOUNDED LIKE THEY MAY CONTAIN AEROSOL CANS…NO HAZMARKS, PACKAGE DID RATTLE…FOUND FOUR AEROSOL CANS OF SPRAY GLASS CLEANER… REQUESTED ALL TRACKING NUMBERS FOR ALL PACKAGES DISCOVERED TO PRODUCE THE SAME RATTLING SOUND. ALL PACKAGES WERE INSPECTED AND FOUND TO CONTAIN AEROSOL SPRAY CANS.” 

March 18, 2023 (X-2023040267)

“DURING PACKAGE HANDLING, THE CHARACTERISTIC RATTLE SOUND PRODUCED BY DRY ICE WAS HEARD…OPENED PACKAGE TO FIND FOUR PINTS OF ICE CREAM BEING COOLED BY APPROX. TWO POUNDS OF DRY ICE.” 

February 2, 2023 (X-2023020134)

How Undeclared Hazmat Gets Discovered In Transit

For experienced package handlers, a rattling or rolling sound can be a tell-tale sign that a box contains UN 1845, carbon dioxide, solid—otherwise known as dry ice. Hearing dry ice is preferable to an alternate method of dry ice discovery—contacting it with bare skin while handling a package.  

Note: Dry ice is a common culprit when it comes to incident reports involving undeclared hazmat. Read more: “Flying Frozen Tamales, Undeclared.”

Random Inspections or Audits

Of course, discovery of undeclared hazmat is not left completely up to supply chain workers’ very keen senses. Undeclared hazardous materials are a known issue for cargo transportation companies, and one that can pose an existential risk to any vehicle carrying packages.

As a matter of course, package sorting and loading facilities audit shipments to expressly seek out undeclared hazardous materials—like in this Incident Report: 

"UNDECLARED SHIPPER AUDIT…UPON INSPECTION OF 10 BOXES PULLED OUT OF THE TOTAL SHIPMENT 4 WERE FOUND TO HAVE HAZMAT (FLAMMABLE LIQUID NOS / AEROSOLS / ACETONE). ALL 4 BOXES ARE BEING HELD…"

March 8, 2023 (X-2023031168)

When a hazardous material is discovered undeclared, any worker who encounters the package can easily be injured from contact with the material, face a poison or inhalation hazard, or be harmed some other way.

In a situation where a fast, proper response is crucial to protect life and health—a gas release, a fire, an emergency spill, etc.—hazmat responders will not have the information they need about the material's identity, they hazards they are facing, how to protect themselves, or the level of danger to people in the surrounding area.

These are two of  many reasons that US DOT/PHMSA launched the Check the Box campaign in recent years to raise awareness of undeclared hazmat in the supply chain and the danger it poses. To learn more about the Check the Box campaign and the campaign's mascot "Hazardous Matt," visit PHMSA's website.

 

Tags: hazardous materials, hazmat, hazmat shipping, incident reports, undeclared

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