Simplifying the 49 CFR Shipping Rules ©12/2013 image by Paul Burgess; all rights reserved

Simplifying the 49 CFR Shipping Rules

When people agree that Einstein might have trouble understanding 49 CFR shipping requirements, the solution is to approach them using a step-by-step process.

Labelmaster recently conducted a survey of its core business clients – shippers of hazardous materials (referred to as dangerous goods, or DG) – to determine their thoughts about working with the occasionally complex sets of regulations governing this logistics function. Among the findings, some 56 percent of respondents agreed with the statement "…even Einstein would have difficulty understanding 49 CFR shipping requirements," while 59 percent noted the inherent challenge of simply keeping pace with the changes and modifications in regulations as time passes.

In reality, of course, the question about Albert Einstein is a bit of hyperbole. The brilliant physicist and teacher probably would not have any trouble understanding the rules. Why? Amidst his genius, his other, quite practical qualities were his meticulous attention to detail and his organized and methodical nature, no doubt real benefits when formulating the theories that continue to help explain the basic physical nature of the world around us today. We may conjecture that these qualities also would prove very useful to him were he to reappear today as a dangerous goods professional.

Don't Be Intimidated

It is apparent that many people are intimidated by the appearance and massive word count of the regulations. Whether it's the US 49 CFR Parts 100-185 that govern DG shipments here in the United States, the ICAO TI and its translated iterations, the IATA DGR or AIR Shipper, the IMDG Code for ocean shipping or any one of the large number of foreign equivalents to the 49 CFR like the EU ADR or the Canada TDGR, all of these publications feature sufficient small text and large lists and revisions that at first may seem overwhelmingly complicated to use to the uninitiated eye. However, this really is not the case.

Like even Einstein did with his theories, the solution to the problem is best accomplished through a step-by-step process. Regardless of which set of shipping regulations one is following, these guidelines are recommended:

  • Determine the correct set of rules to work with. In the United States and if shipping by ground, the right set of rules is the 49 CFR Parts 100-185. This is the law of our land for shipping dangerous goods.  
  • When shipping by air, the ICAO TI or one of its derivations often is the correct choice. Note that many air carriers have their own specific rules, called "variations" or "limitations," that often exceed the otherwise stated regulatory requirements for the particular dangerous good you are shipping. You must be aware of and adhere to these rules when shipping by this mode.  
  • Some domestic air carriers also operate solely under the rules found in the 49 CFR, although this is unusual except in limited application like Gulf of Mexico oil field services and the Alaskan bush.  
  • If shipping by an ocean carrier, likely the IMDG Code is your guide, although, here again, shippers only using internal U.S. waterways often use 49 CFR. In any case, remember that under U.S. law, the 49 CFR Parts 100-185 always has primacy and often will affect or modify the regulations found in the other (internationally used) texts. In these cases, such modifications usually appear as "state variations" or possibly "special provisions," which will notify you that such a circumstance exists.  Always check for these.

Be sure that everyone involved with shipping has the specified training. In the United States, 49 CFR 172.700-704 specifies the most basic mandatory training required for shippers of dangerous goods. The other sets of regulations have their own requirements; you should be trained for both the type and level of expertise required for the dangerous goods you ship and the modes of transport you intend to use. Remember to document your training because auditors will ask for these records.

Classify Dangerous Goods

After identifying regulations and training, it's time to classify the dangerous good or goods. Review section 14 (transportation) of your product's safety Data Sheet (SDS). If the product already is classified, there's a good chance that this information is already available for you. It also may be in section 16 (other/miscellaneous regulatory information).

If you are not the original manufacturer, contact them. They are required to have this information available. If the product still must be classified, then all of the sets of regulations offer classification sections that will guide you to a proper finding based on your product's physical characteristics or health effects.

The purpose of classification is to find the right hazard class and packing group and the most accurate proper shipping name, which will lead you to the correct UN identification number. That vital number will specify the packing instructions that will instruct you in the requirements for correctly packaging, marking, labeling and, if applicable, placarding your dangerous good, as well as the right type of information required on accompanying shipping papers and any other documentation.

Select the Appropriate UN-Specified Packaging

Except in the case of very small shipments of dangerous goods (called de minimis, excepted or limited quantities), regulated dangerous goods typically must be packed in UN-tested and approved packaging. These range in size from small fiberboard boxes up through a variety of drums, crates and even bulk packaging like containerized tanks or rail tank cars.

Regardless of its size, each UN-certified specification packaging type will have passed performance tests and been assigned classification markings which, in concert with the packing instructions, will specify its legal use. It is imperative to understand the UN specification markings on the packaging selected. Verify that the packaging specifically is authorized for use in carrying the type and quantity of dangerous goods that you are shipping and via the mode of transport that you have selected.  

Follow Authorized Packing Instructions

A set of these should come with the packaging when you purchase it unless it already ispreprinted on the packaging itself, a circumstance common with fiberboard boxes, for example.

Label and mark packaging. In the world of DG, those are two separate functions.  Labels usually refer to the hazard class label or labels required on the outside of the package. These are the diamond-shaped labels (referred to as "square on point" in the regulations) that display the appropriate hazard class number, symbol and, if applicable, division number. These labels are regulated in color, size and appearance; it's important to make sure you apply only the correct labels.  

Several other labels also exist and may be required including lithium battery handling labels, cargo aircraft only labels and time and temperature labels. The specific types required for your shipment will vary with type and mode of transport.  

Markings also are required and may refer to both text like the UN number and proper shipping name as well as other markings like the limited quantity and overpack markings.  
If the load is a large one, or a small load of certain dangerous goods, placarding may be required for the vehicle or container in which the DG is loaded. In general, placarding is more common for ground and ocean shipments; however, it is always vital to verify all of the needed labels, placards and markings for DG shipments.

Review both the specific packing instruction and the marking section in the regulations to confirm that all required labels and markings are correctly applied. Once the load leaves your facility it is too late to correct what may prove to be a dangerous or costly oversight.

Is Documentation In Order?

 Despite nearly everyone's distaste for excessive paperwork, the shipping papers and other documents that may be required for transport of your DG is the way that, along with labels and markings displayed on the package, you communicate all of the required information about your product to people and places further down the transport chain.  

Required documents can vary widely, depending on the mode of transport.  In very general terms, ground transport in the United States requires DG information to be recorded on the bill of lading. Shipping by air or ocean carrier under ICAO or IMO regulations usually requires a specific dangerous goods declaration (DGD).  

Other documents may be required, depending on the DG in question. Most lithium battery shipments, for example, require additional documents. In all of the regulations, there are specific exceptions and additions to all of these general guidelines.  It is important to understand the requirements for the specific load and mode of your shipment prior to offering it for transport in commerce.

While shipping dangerous goods can be somewhat complicated, particularly to the newly initiated, it doesn't really take the intellect of Einstein. Follow the straightforward systematic method outlined above to get to the end of your DG transport application safely and compliantly. Always read and understand the regulations governing your shipment before you ship it. Never guess – not with dangerous goods, and certainly not with atomic energy. Einstein surely would approve.

Nikki Burgess is a staff regulatory specialist at Labelmaster and the company's expert on OSHA's hazard communication standard. She has over 30 years of experience in the hazard communication, dangerous goods and environmental, health and safety sectors, including the U.S. Navy and the trucking, heavy manufacturing and railroad industries.

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