From time to time, shippers, carriers, and inspectors disagree about what is or is not a violation of the Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR). With thousands of detailed requirements to follow, it’s no wonder that interpretations of these rules can sometimes vary from state to state, county to county, or even from inspector to inspector.
When a disagreement does occur, it sometimes falls to PHMSA to “settle the argument.” A letter of interpretation recently released on US DOT’s hazmat website illustrates just this kind of compliance disagreement.
Hazmat Notice of Violation for “Incorrect” Shipping Papers
The background: In Michigan, a carrier accepted a hazmat shipment of four totes of UN 1760, “
Corrosive liquid, n.o.s.” with a technical name added in parentheses as required for all “generic” shipping names.
A state DOT hazmat inspector later issued a Notice of Violation to the carrier, for allegedly accepting/transporting noncompliant hazardous materials (49 CFR 177.801).
The inspector who issued the violation stated that the shipper had failed to properly indicate the type and quantity of packages in the shipment as required by 49 CFR 172.202(a)(7)—
and therefore the shipment should not have been accepted. The carrier challenged this violation—citing the Bill of Lading for that shipment, which lists five types of packaging’s—Bulk, Tote, Drum, Pail, Box—with a “4” placed under the word “Tote” (as shown above
The state DOT denied the challenge. The carrier then sent the details to PHMSA and requested an official interpretation.
The state inspector who issued the violation for this shipment recommended that the shipper circle
the applicable type of packaging in the heading, to limit possible confusion in the future.
What Did PHMSA Decide?
“You ask whether the shipping paper included with your letter conforms to the quantity and type of packaging provisions described in 49 CFR 172.202(a)(7).
See the full letter of interpretation and supporting documentation here.
The answer is yes. In accordance with 172.702(a)(7), the shipping description of a hazardous material on a shipping paper must include the number and type of package (i.e., “10 cylinders per box” and “5 fiberboard boxes”) either before or after the required basic description. While it might not be in a format preferred by this Office, the shipping paper you provide does satisfy this requirement by placing a number (quantity) of packages directly under the applicable packaging in a heading of “BULK TOTE DRUM PAIL BOX.” (emphasis ours)
To translate that into plain English, PHMSA says that while they don’t exactly love
how the shipper indicated the type and quantity here, it does meet the basic requirement and therefore is not an HMR violation.
How Would You Handle This Situation?
If this were your shipment, would you change the way you indicate package type and quantity on the shipping papers in the future? Considering that formatting the shipping paper this way caused a headache for the shipper and carrier—even if, ultimately, they were found to be in compliance—it may be a good idea to take the inspectors’ advice and make the package type and quantity even more explicit next time.
We all make mistakes, but you’ve worked hard to study, understand, and correctly apply Federal hazmat regulations to your shipments. If you believe you’ve done everything right—but you still get hit with a NOV—you’re not out of options.
Challenging the state or Federal agency to explain its decision may help shed light on the situation, and help you avoid issues in the future. Inquiring about disputed “violations” can not only save you from expensive fines and penalties, in some cases it may protect other shippers from misinformed or over-zealous enforcement in the future.
You can find details about how to request a formal letter of interpretation from PHMSA on the webpage for PHMSA’s Hazardous Materials Information Center.
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