Basic Description vs. Shipping Description—What’s the Difference?

Posted on 6/24/2015 by Roger Marks

In a recent request for interpretation submitted to the US DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a hazmat industry group asked the DOT to clarify its use of two specific terms in the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR).

According to the request, submitted by the Dangerous Goods Trainers Association (DGTA), the use of the terms “basic description” and “shipping description” raise questions for hazmat shippers when filling out shipping papers and offering a hazmat consignment.

What Is a Basic Description?

The “basic description” is the core of hazmat shipping documentation and is made up of the following four elements, in order:
  1. Identification Number
  2. Proper Shipping Name
  3. Hazard Class or Division
  4. Packing Group (if applicable)
The order of these four elements was officially changed in January 2013. Listing these elements in any other order is a violation the HMR and can result in rejected shipments and PHMSA civil penalties.

Hazmat employee filling out and offering shipping papers

What Is a Shipping Description?

The Code of Federal Regulations lists requirements for a “shipping description”—a more comprehensive description of the shipment. The requirements for the full “shipping description” include the basic description described above and other information about the shipment like the quantity of material, mass, packaging type, number of packages, and any words required to further describe the material. [49 CFR 172.202]

DGTA’s Proposal

Because the terms “basic description” and “shipping description” have similar meanings, and because the regulations themselves often simply use the word “description” in reference to specific requirements, DGTA suggests explicitly defining these terms in the regulations to make it more clear to shippers which meaning is being referenced at any time in the rules. The association has recommended the following definitions be added to 49 CFR 171.8:

Basic description means the information comprising the identification number, Proper Shipping Name, primary and subsidiary hazard class(es) or division(s), and packing group, when applicable, as prescribed in §172.202(a), (b), (c), and (d) of this subchapter.

Shipping description means the information required to describe a hazardous material on a shipping paper including the basic description and the additional information prescribed in §172.202 and §172.203 of this subchapter.

DGTA also recommends places in the regulations where “shipping description” can be added to further clarify the hazmat shipping documentation requirements.

Clarifying this part of the regulations may help to dispel confusion among shippers about which “description” is which, and which to use in order to comply with specific HMR requirements when offering a hazmat shipment.

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Be confident your hazmat shipments are safe and in compliance with the latest DOT rules with interactive hazmat workshops,online courses, and webinars at For hazmat shipping managers and personnel, staying up-to-date with rule changes is critical. Missing a single mandate can lead to rejected shipments, incidents in transit, and the risk of your materials entering the wrong hands. Per 49 CFR 172.704, hazmat employee training is required within 90 days for new employees, at least once every three years thereafter, and when regulations change that affect your employees’ jobs.

Tags: DOT, hazmat shipping

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