Denny Eisenhofer will tell you that safety isn’t everything when it comes to trucking hazardous materials. It is the only thing.

Eisenhofer, a 30-plus year veteran of Reading, PA-based Textile Chemical Company, has spent 20 years behind the wheel of hazmat trucks and more than 10 as a fleet manager. He handles all the trucking operations at Textile Chemical, managing a fleet of more than 60 Freightliner day cabs and sleepers, a variety of steel box and tanker trailers and 37 drivers. They have the unenviable job of hauling acids, solvents, dry chemicals and a host of other hazardous materials from Ohio to upstate New York and Virginia. “The only thing we don’t haul are explosives and radioactive materials,” says Eisenhofer.

The job can be especially nerve-wracking in the winter, as his drivers must negotiate mountain passes at night in blizzards and ice storms since hazardous materials transportation is forbidden in the tunnels used by other tractor-trailers.

Eisenhofer believes that to succeed in hazmat freight, fleets and their drivers must do two things: Respect the hazmat being carries and always put safety first. “If you are properly trained, if your truck is loaded correctly and if you always put the safety of your load first, you are no more a risk than anyone else out on the road,” he says. “Safety is always our number-one priority – absolutely.

“I’ve been around this stuff all my life and I have respect for it. But it doesn’t scare me like it does the general public,” he adds. “Each of our trucks is equipped with a spill kit, complete with shovel, absorbent pads and sand, you name it, and our drivers are trained to know what to do if the worst should happen. You really lower your risk of problems if you focus on safety and the training to back it up.”

Serious business

Hazardous materials transportation is a serious business on U.S. highways. Any trucker will tell you that the first tractor-trailer pulled over for a roadside inspection by state or local police will almost always be one with hazmat placards.

Violations of any and all hazardous materials regulations – even ones involving training lapses – are dealt with severely. Regulations under the Federal Hazardous Material Transportation Law stipulate a civil penalty of up to $27,500 for each violation and, in certain cases, criminal penalties can be assessed of up to $500,000 along with imprisonment of up to five years.

However, the key to making hazmat transportation safer is teamwork, says Rob Maberry, manager of chemical transportation safety at Yellow Freight System of Overland Park, KS.

Maberry adds that shippers and carriers must work together on action plans that emphasize preparation, planning and knowledge about the rules and procedures involved in safe handling and transporting. “While most of the burden for safe and secure handling and transport of chemical shipments falls on carriers, shippers and others can take some steps to ensure that shipments arrives at consignees on time, damage-free and, most importantly, without incident,” he says.

First, shippers and carriers must take extra precautions to ensure that chemical shipment container or packaging material is in good condition. “Professionals understand that most hazardous materials are not to be feared. They can be safely handled, transported and stored by observing U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) regulations and best practices that the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care initiative has developed,” says Maberry.

He adds that best practices include ensuring that cartons or bags are free of punctures or tears and that bungs and closures on drums and tote tanks are secured. Containers should not be dented, corroded or damaged in any way. “It may not seem like much, but a slightly damaged container can turn into a big problem,” he says.

Mayberry stresses that no carrier is immune from the laws of physics and road hazards. “The motion and movement inside a trailer can be intense. Yellow and other carriers make maximum use of air bags, pallet decks, load bars, plywood and other equipment to ensure that chemical shipments are secure in transit,” he says. “But there is no sense taking chances with packaging failure when it can be easily avoided on the front end.”

He adds that shippers and fleets must pay careful attention to details when completing bills of lading. “It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of this document,” Maberry says. “The success of the whole shipping transaction depends on accurate and complete descriptions of all chemicals being transported. Because the bill of lading is your legally binding contract, every bit of information is critical.”

The first rule is to always list hazardous materials first, in a color that contrasts with all other entries. Another option is to identify the materials by placing a letter "X" in a column captioned hazardous materials, he says.

“Your description should include the number of pieces, the proper shipping name, the numeric hazard class, the four-digit UN/NA identification number, the packing group and a 24-hour emergency telephone number,” Maberry points out. “The trade name of the product is a vital piece of information that is often omitted. In an emergency, obtaining the correct Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) often depends on identifying the product by its trade name. The document should also indicate the total weight of the shipment and must be signed. All bill of lading information is crucial in the event of a spill or other emergency. It will be the first source of information emergency responders and authorities will check.”

He adds that each container or package must be labeled and be consistent with the bill of lading. “Labeling all pieces, no matter whether they consist of cartons, bags, drums, cylinders or tote tanks, ensures that we can find them easily if they are separated during transportation,” Maberry says. “Make sure that the label includes your name and address and those of your consignee. In some cases, it may be helpful to add your own identifying marks or labels.”

Properly palletizing shipments is another area to review. Maberry says stacking cartons in an interlocking pattern can reduce the stacking strength of cartons by up to 50%, increasing the chance of damages and spills.

“Bags, cartons, drums or containers that hang over the edges of the pallet are particularly susceptible to damage during loading and unloading and from other freight being positioned next to them,” he says. “Also, poorly stacked or misaligned cartons can result in the loss of compression strength. A crushed box is a potential spill or leak by the time it arrives at its destination.”

Safety and security

Training is critical to making hazmat transportation not only safer but more secure – especially after the events of September 11, 2001, says Maberry.

“In today’s environment of heightened concern about hazardous materials security, teamwork and training between shippers and carriers has never been more important,” he says. “All carriers are on alert to watch for suspicious activity related to transporting hazardous materials.”

For example, Maberry says, a shipment scheduled to be delivered to a site that has no commercial or industrial production, such as a residence or garage, or a night delivery to a site that is not normally in operation at that time raise some immediate red flags. So are consignees that pick up chemical shipments at the carrier's dock, pay cash for the shipments and can be contacted only by cell phone.

On the safety side, Textile Chemical’s Eisenhofer says that going a step or two beyond federal hazmat regulations can pay off handsomely for fleets.

“All truck drivers have a tremendous amount of responsibilities out there. Ours have even more, due to the materials being hauled and the numerous complications that can arise in the event of an accident – clean-ups, investigations, liability claims and more,” Eisenhofer says. “While we may be small in size compared to some of the larger private and for-hire trucking companies that are out there, we’re still as big as they are about safety.”

Federal regulations identify a hazmat employee as one who loads, unloads or handles hazardous materials; prepares hazardous materials for transportation; is responsible for the safety of hazmat goods or operates a vehicle used to transport them.

Each hazmat employee must be trained and tested, certified and must have a refresher course every three years, with a record of all training received, according to DOT. That training must include general awareness ad familiarization with the different classes of hazardous materials, how their job interacts with hazmats and driver training for all employees who will operate a motor vehicle hauling hazardous goods.

No specific regulations address how long the training should take, so any-length program can still be approved by the DOT, as long as all necessary material is covered and the employee is tested on their knowledge of it.

Eisenhofer, however, does the Feds one better – actually, several better. His drivers get anywhere from four to six weeks of training before they sit behind the wheel.

“First off, for a new driver, they must have a hazmat endorsement on their commercial drivers license before we even consider hiring them,” he said. “Then they spend three to four days in the office with me just going over all the hazardous materials rules and regulations. They get a refresher course every year because we believe the more frequent, the better.”

The prospective driver goes into the warehouse and takes a turn on every shift. “They learn how to load, package and properly secure the hazardous goods we transport before they do the hauling themselves,” said Eisenhofer.

Once free of the warehouse, the driver candidate rides shotgun with a veteran driver for a few weeks, to get hands-on experience on a day-to-day basis. “I want to be sure they know what they are doing long before they get behind the wheel,” Eisenhofer explains.