In September, a British jury found Amazon UK guilty of shipping hazardous materials by air without proper labeling or packaging. The e-commerce giant had shipped lithium-ion batteries, which have the potential to explode and catch fire, as well as aerosols that used a gas propellant that is also combustible. Then,
According to a Guardian article on the verdict, Amazon does have a protocol for shipping hazardous materials, but staff working from far-flung parts of the globe incorrectly labeled some packages as nonhazardous. This is a cautionary tale for any e-commerce seller who carries items that contain hazardous materials. It highlights the need for careful and knowledgeable fulfillment warehouse staff. Shipping hazardous materials is the keystone of many successful businesses. You just need to know how to do it right.
Here in the US, an Amazon package actually injured several UPS workers leading to an FAA investigation and civil fine of $350,000. According to this NBC News report, “the penalty is the largest fine the FAA has proposed imposing on Amazon, which the agency said has had a series of at least 24 hazardous materials violations in recent years.”
Shipping Hazardous Materials Defined
In the United States, there are government codes regulating the transportation of hazardous materials. Shippers such as UPS and FedEx have their own rules about shipping hazardous materials, to comply with applicable laws and ensure the safety of their carriers.
The federal regulations generally classify materials as hazardous if they are explosive, flammable, poisonous, dangerous when wet, infectious, radioactive, or corrosive. While you are unlikely to sell plutonium or smallpox virus in your online shop, your goods could fall into the hazmat category if they contain a potentially flammable gas (as most aerosol spray cans do) or a flammable solid, such as the lithium batteries that Amazon UK shipped improperly. A lot of the products listed below may not seem hazardous at first through, but recently Samsung has unfortunately reminded us that even the devices in our pockets can turn explosive under the right conditions.
Items on the hazardous materials list (which is a very long list) that are of most concern to e-commerce sellers include:
- Alcohol (both the rubbing and the drinking kinds)
- Compressed air
- Air conditioners
- All kinds of fireworks, including toy caps
- Gunpowder, flares, fuses, and ammunition
- First aid kits
- Fish meal
- Thermometers and other items containing mercury
- Paint, varnish, shellac, polish, and lacquer
- Some kinds of printing ink
- Rocket motors and some types of rockets
- Medicinal tinctures
- Any device that contains fuel
- Electric wheelchairs
You know your products better than anyone. It’s a good idea to check out the table of hazardous materials under Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Section 172.01 to see if any of the components of your products are considered hazardous. Even if you sell something seemingly innocuous, like first aid kits, you might be shipping hazardous materials that require extra precautions.
The downside of improperly shipping hazardous materials can be big, even if nothing blows up. Amazon was fined £65 million ($82 million). The penalty if you are caught shipping hazardous materials without taking the proper precautions in the U.S. can range from $450 to $250,000 for an individual (a corporation may be fined up to $500,000) for each incorrectly shipped package.
Fulfillment Centers and Shipping Hazardous Materials
If your e-commerce business includes items that are classified as hazmat, a fulfillment center with experience in shipping hazardous materials can give your business a tremendous boost. As you probably have discovered already, you can’t just walk into your local carrier’s office and ship an order that contains a restricted substance or product.
FedEx will only accept hazardous material shipments from approved shippers. UPS requires properly prepared shipments using the carrier’s WorldShip software or a third-party vendor. A fulfillment center that already has the systems in place for shipping hazardous materials will save you time and headaches.
Regulations Governing Shipping Hazardous Materials
In addition to the U.S. regulations under Title 49 of the CFR, the U.S. Department of Transit has regulations governing the interstate trucking of hazmat. The International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organization each have rules about international air shipments of hazardous materials as well.
Then there’s UN POP: United National Performance-Oriented Packaging guidelines. Have you and your employees completed hazardous materials training? No?
There is a forest of regulation about shipping hazardous materials. Which regulations apply to shipments with which carriers and which apply to U.S. shipments versus overseas freight can be confusing at best and terrifying at worst, especially if all you want to do is send some sparklers to Cincinnati.
Once again, a fulfillment center that is well-versed in shipping hazardous materials will know which regulations apply to which carriers. Your fulfillment center rep can help you figure out the best modes for shipping hazardous materials so your sparklers can shine on the banks of the mighty Ohio River.
Lots of consumer products contain batteries. Everything from laptops and cell phones to clocks, toys, and music players may be battery-powered. Little Madison will be happier if her Bill the Bear comes with batteries and is ready to talk, so you may find yourself shipping batteries to your customers.
The good news is that the most common types of consumer batteries (AA, AAA, C, D) are not considered hazardous and can be shipped without special labeling or packaging. Like other batteries, however, these types of batteries can set Bill the Bear on fire en route if they’re not packed properly. Leave the batteries out of the bear’s back and make sure they are well-wrapped so that positive doesn’t meet negative. A good fulfillment center can help you determine the best way to package goods that come with batteries.
Lithium and lithium ion batteries commonly found in laptops, cameras, phones, and many other devices that make our electronic age hum are more combustible than the ones that come with Bill the Bear; these do require special handling, as do lead-acid batteries such as those that power electric wheelchairs. Once again, your fulfillment center is your best friend in labeling, packing, and shipping these batteries.
Safely and Legally Shipping Hazardous Materials
To comply with regulations for shipping hazardous materials, your packages must be properly labeled. What this means will depend on the item.
At a minimum, your orders will almost certainly need to carry the UN number on the outside. This is a number assigned by the United Nations to each hazardous material to help create a global standard for hazardous material shipments. If the hazmat in your product doesn’t have a UN number, it should have an NA number that you can use instead. Your fulfillment center can help you get your products matched up with the correct UN or NA numbers.
In addition, certain hazmat items need special codes or identifiers on the label. For some types of materials, you will need a special permit in order to ship.
Most hazardous materials must be packaged according to specific packaging standards. These standards include extra-sturdy boxes and tight lids. Weight limits per package may apply. Again, your fulfillment center will know these regulations well and can advise you on the best methods for shipping hazardous materials to comply with the law and keep your packing and shipping costs to a minimum.
The lesson in all this is: do it right. If Lex Luthor wants to send Superman a Kryptonite surprise (krypton is a hazardous material), he’d be smart to pack and label the box correctly. Otherwise, it could cost him more than the wrath of the Man of Steel.