How to Identify a Hazardous Material for Transport

While certain items can be transported via simple methods, hazardous materials require significantly more care. Certain substances may require a specific shipping method.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations (HRM) specify how hazardous materials should be transported within state lines, from state-to-state and overseas. These regulations help minimize potential catastrophes for those handling and transporting the materials, as well as the general public.

Especially if your business transports chemicals or waste, you may come across an unlabeled container. Rather than take a chance, understand how to determine if the substance is a hazardous material and how it should be packaged, labeled and transported.

U.S. DOT Labeling

The U.S. DOT’s Hazardous Materials Regulations specify how these substances should be classified, how that status should be communicated to and identified by handlers, as well as packaging and shipping requirements.

For companies transporting hazardous materials, 49 CFR 173.22 states these substances need to be classified, described and labeled appropriately, and packaged correctly.

Considering these factors, a key aspect of identifying a hazardous material is the included placard. For workers across the supply chain, this diamond-shaped symbol indicates what should be done with the package, including where it should be placed inside a rail car or truck, the container that should be used to transport it, and if it can be shipped in bulk.

Along with a color and symbol, these placards include a four-digit number identifying the type of hazardous material. As supply chains are increasingly international, these placards are designed to be used and recognized across borders to lessen exposure to hazardous materials and handle them appropriately to prevent spills and other types of disasters.

Common symbol combinations across placards are:

  • Non-Flammable Gases: Solid green with a cylinder graphic
  • Explosives: Solid orange with a starburst symbol
  • Oxidizers: Solid yellow with an image of a ball with flames
  • Poisonous Substances: Solid white with a skull and crossbones image
  • Flammable Gases and Liquids: Solid red with an image of a flame
  • Flammable Solids: A background of red and white stripes with an image of flames
  • Radioactive Substances: A yellow and white placard with a propeller or standard radioactive symbol
  • Corrosive Substances: A white and black placard with an image of a test tube

Unlabeled and Unidentified Substances

Procedures and recordkeeping are the first steps to identifying potentially hazardous substances. Facilities involved in testing, chemical manufacturing and waste are recommended to:  

  • Label all substances by their full name, rather than use chemical structures.
  • Have clear locations for storing waste and chemicals in line with Safety Data Sheets (SDS) recommendations, including dedicated areas and a clear system of labeling.
  • Require all chemicals to be labeled before a worker leaves an area.
  • Keep records of all chemicals and substances within the facility.

Should you come across an unlabeled container, never attempt to transport or dispose of it yourself. Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends analyzing and identifying a substance in an unlabeled or unclear container. Not taking these precautions can result in a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) violation for your facility.

Due to potential exposure and hazards, unknown or unmarked waste is prohibited for transport at state and federal levels. To help identify the substance:

  • First go through facility records to determine which substances are typically stored in these containers.
  • If you can’t determine its origins, have a pH test conducted to narrow down the type of substance and check for reagents.
  • If you cannot identify the substance at all, contact a local laboratory to test its molecular structure.

To protect your employees from potentially dangerous shipments, make sure your business has inland marine insurance. This coverage involves the transportation of goods over land. To learn more about our commercial lines, contact a HUB/Ion Insurance agent today.