$91,000 Glue: HazMat Violations Can be Costly

The DOT’s Hazardous Materials Regulations seem to be a bit like a mosquito at a summer barbecue to most Part 135 operators. They aren’t annoying enough to give up on the party but they require an occasional swat to keep them at bay. Operators – whether approved as will-carry or will-not-carry HazMat operators – typically comply with their HazMat training requirements through computer-based training programs, which pilots might or might not pay attention to. HazMat programs are often low on the priority list and the DOT changes its regulations pretty regularly, so it’s not uncommon to see outdated or inaccurate HazMat programs. And – especially for will-not-carry operators – sometimes the burden to comply is inadvertently pushed off to the passenger.

I often have occasion to ask a Part 135 operator how they alert passengers to their HazMat status and any applicable restrictions. Nine times out of ten, I’m given a quote or itinerary which states in 2 point font with semi-opaque ink that XYZ operator is a will-not-carry operator and instructs the passenger to refer to the DOT’s website for more information.

Seriously? How often is the passenger the individual who actually receives the quote (and not an administrative assistant, travel coordinator, family member)? Even if the passenger receives the quote, do you think they really read the tiny print and then trek off to the DOT’s website to learn more? Trust me – they don’t.

HazMat Regulations should be taken seriously because the cost for non-compliance can be high. Some Part 121 cargo carriers have so many HazMat violations they must consider them a cost of doing business. In some cases, the FAA assesses civil penalties to passengers. Is it likely the FAA would ramp check a Part 135 flight, find HazMat in a passenger’s bag, and fine the air carrier and/or passenger? Admittedly, this is probably not a huge risk in the game of life. But you should know the FAA’s standard civil penalty ceiling of up to $50,000 does not apply to HazMat violations. The FAA can – and does – assess much higher penalties even for single violations.

Amazon.com recently paid a $91,000 civil penalty for violating DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations. Amazon employees improperly shipped a package containing flammable liquid adhesive by air on Federal Express from Whitestown, IN, to Boulder, CO. FedEx employees in Boulder discovered the one-gallon container of adhesive because it was leaking. The adhesive is classified as HazMat and Amazon did not provide the shipper with required shipping papers or emergency response information, nor did it mark, label, or properly package the shipment. According to the FAA, Amazon also failed to properly train its employees in preparing HazMat for shipment by air.

The FAA recently proposed a $325,000 civil penalty against Alfa Chemistry for allegedly violating DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations. The proposed $325,000 fine is the result of allegedly shipping 4 pints of a chemical called Acrolein, which is toxic/poisonous and flammable. FedEx employees discovered the liquid when it began emitting a strong odor.

Can you afford a $91,000 or $325,000 civil penalty? If you don’t mind spinning the wheel with the FAA and hoping they don’t get involved in your HazMat program, how about the serious possible consequences of improperly carrying HazMat? Do you recall the 1996 ValuJet accident which claimed the lives of 110 people? There are other aviation accidents in which improper carriage of HazMat was a potential contributing factor or cause of the accident, but ValuJet was certainly one of the most catastrophic.

My point here is this: Don’t be lackadaisical* about your HazMat program. Are you sure it reflects current regulations? Are you sure training of all employees who could encounter HazMat is being done in compliance with regulations and that training is being taken seriously? How do you advise passengers of HazMat restrictions? Although the passenger could end up with the fine should a violation take place, I’m guessing that customer wouldn’t be flying with you again anytime soon, not to mention the fact a passenger violation is likely to bring undesired FAA attention to your operation.

And then there’s the safety case for treating your HazMat program with respect. A HazMat-related accident could be catastrophic. That’s a wheel you probably don’t want to spin.

Brush off your HazMat program. Make sure it’s compliant with today’s regulations. Pay attention to changes in regulations and update your program accordingly. And be sure your pilots, employees, and passengers understand the importance of properly transporting HazMat.

(Name that now-retired FAA attorney who used that word regularly and gain my never-ending admiration for your elephant-like memory!)

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