E-commerce is booming—often involving direct shipments to customers from manufacturers, suppliers, and online auctions—and the use of the United States Postal Service (Post Office) to ship small packages of hazardous materials is becoming more common. Add to this the Post Office’s “If it fits, it ships” marketing campaign for its Priority One service, and companies are enticed by more cost-effective options for shipping smaller packages. If you are considering using the Post Office as your hazmat carrier, here are a few of the critical challenges for you to evaluate.
DOT versus USPS Jurisdiction
It is important to remember that if a person is offering a hazardous material for transportation in commerce in the U.S., even by way of the Post Office, the U.S. DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) have primary jurisdiction. So, a shipment of hazardous materials must still be prepared in accordance with the requirements at 49 CFR 171-180, including shipments of limited quantities. The material must be of a hazard type and carry a Proper Shipping Name that DOT permits for limited quantity exception packaging.
The Post Office, as a special quasi-government corporation, has its own requirements for the preparation of any parcel shipped using its services. The regulations are located in the Mailing Standards of the United States Post Office, commonly known as the “Domestic Mail Manual” (DMM). Specifically, the DMM has provisions for the mailing of hazardous materials in Section 601, “Mailability,” Sub-section 10.0, “Hazardous Materials.”
While recognizing that the HMR takes precedent to hazmat shipments in the U.S., the Post Office’s DMM has additional restrictions on the type and amount of a hazmat that can be carried by the Post Office. According to the DMM,
“The USPS standards generally restrict the mailing of hazardous materials to ORM-D (permitted for surface transportation only until January 1, 2015), and consumer commodity or mailable limited quantity materials that meet USPS quantity limitations and packaging requirements. All exceptions are subject to the standards in 10.0. Detailed information on the mailability of specific hazardous materials is contained in Publication 52, Hazardous, Restricted, and Perishable Mail.” [DMM, Section 601, Subsection 10.3]
So, to prepare a hazmat package for shipment through the Post Office, shippers must employ a two-step process. They must first determine whether the HMR allows limited quantity, ORM-D shipments of their material. If so, then shippers must further evaluate the DMM and Publication 52 to determine additional restrictions or permission for shipment through the mail.
USPS and DOT Rules Not Harmonized
In pursuing this two-step process, the shipper will soon learn that the HMR and DMM are not harmonized. According to Post Office representatives, the Post Office will likely continue to have more stringent rules for hazmat mail shipments. The primary reasons include:
Target audience – the Post Office deals with the public, at large, and not just the commercial shipper. The general public’s knowledge of hazardous materials and the HMR is very limited. So, the Post Office establishes its rules based on the larger common denominator.
Size of the operations – The Post Office has over 34,000 facilities and other touch points for hazardous materials in its logistics stream. The effort (including costs) to coordinate and train personnel to handle hazmat shipments consistent with the DOT requirements is too large in light of increasing fiscal challenges.
Statutory restrictions – The Post Office does not have the same authority as the Department of Transportation to open packages. As a result, the Post Office has made risk-based decisions to further limit the type and amount of hazardous materials that can be packaged and moved through its system.
While the Post Office has indicated that it does plan on making revisions to the DMM, it does not anticipate to ever fully harmonize with the HMR.
Petitioning for Exception
If a shipper wishes to offer a hazmat shipment that does not conform to the DMM restrictions, he may petition the Post Office for an exception. However, it is important to realize that the Post Office does not have a formal, standardized approach that is similar to or consistent with the DOT’s Special Permit regulations at 49 CFR 107. In order to obtain a permission to ship a hazmat package that is not currently authorized by the DMM, the shipper must submit a formal written request to the Manager of Product Classification, located at: U.S. Postal Service, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 4446, Washington, DC 20260-5015. To assist in the evaluation of the exception petition, the shipper should include at least the following information:
The types of hazardous materials to be shipped by mail;
The quantity of hazmats per package, per shipment, per annum; and
The frequency for shipping the hazardous material.
As there is no formal procedure for evaluating exceptions, the Post Office does not indicate how long the evaluation process will take, so it is important for shippers to plan ahead and allow for an adequate review period. Hazmat shipper trade associations have indicated efforts to petition for some broadly applicable exceptions. If you are a member of a transportation-related trade association and you are considering the use of the Post Office for your hazmat shipments, you may want to consult with them on their efforts.
Do you use USPS for your hazmat shipment? If so, have you encountered any shipping issues? Comment.