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Shipping dangerous goods

When shipping dangerous goods, you need to know which class your goods fall under and what quantity limits apply. This helps you determine the required documentation, packaging and labelling as well as the right transport modes.

What are dangerous goods?

Dangerous goods are items or substances that could pose risks to health, safety or the environment, particularly if they are not handled or packed properly. A classic example is lithium batteries, which can easily overheat and ignite in certain circumstances.
Dangerous goods can be solids, liquids or gases. They may be pure chemicals, mixtures of substances, manufactured products or individual articles. They are classified according to the type of potential hazard, e.g. flammable, poisonous, explosive, radioactive etc.
The United Nations (UN) has established a universal system for the classification, packaging, marking and labelling of dangerous goods to facilitate their safe transport.
There are nine classes of dangerous goods, plus a few sub-classes. Dangerous goods are named with specific UN numbers that must be used in the declaration form and in the packing and labelling.

Classes of dangerous goods

 Class  Type of material Examples 
 1  Explosive substances and articles  Fireworks, flares, arms and ammunition
 2.1  Flammable gas  Butane, aerosols, camping gas, lighters, liquefied gas, acetylene for welding, ethylene for ripening fruits, hydrogen for industrial use
 2.2  Non-flammable and non-toxic gases which could cause asphyxiation or
 Nitrogen, helium, argon, carbon dioxide, oxygen, compressed oxygen, fire extinguishers, refrigerant gas
 2.3  Toxic gases  Chlorine, phosgene, oxygen difluoride, ammonia for industrial freeing, methyl bromide and ethylene oxide for fumigation
 3  Flammable liquids  Lighter fluid, petrol, solvents, paints, varnish, perfume, adhesives, resin solution, printing ink, dry cleaning fluids
 4.1  Flammable solids, self-reactive substances and solid desensitised explosives  Self-reactive substances, solid desensitised explosives, matches, sulphur powder, camphor, naphthalene balls
 4.2  Substances liable to spontaneous combustion  Phosphorus, copra, fish meal
 4.3  Substances which, in contact with water, emit flammable gases  Calcium carbide, sodium, ferrosilicon and potassium metals
 5.1  Oxidising substances  Calcium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide, fertilisers, hair colouring
 5.2  Organic peroxides  Hardeners, fibreglass repair kits
 6.1  Toxic substances  Pesticides, sodium cyanide for metal treatment, chromium salt for electroplating
 6.2  Infectious substances  Blood samples, medical samples, biological substances derived from living organisms
 7  Radioactive material  Smoke detectors, substances for sterilisation of medical products
 8  Corrosive substances  Bleach, drain cleaner, dishwasher tablets, acetic acid, citric acid, caustic soda, car and truck batteries
 9  Miscellaneous dangerous substances and articles  Lithium batteries, magnets, dry ice

Quantity limits

Some everyday consumer goods – food flavourings, perfume, soaps, detergents, cosmetics, dyes, paints and plastics – may be classed as “dangerous” or “hazardous” if certain quantity limits are exceeded or if specific packaging is used.
A perfume spray that fits into a travel bag may seem harmless, but a huge shipment of perfume bottles is potentially dangerous.
Quantity limits for safe transport are listed in column 7a of the “Dangerous goods list” in part 3 of ADR and the IMDG Code (see regulations below).
For certain goods, the limit in column 7a of Table A is zero, which means that those goods may not be shipped in limited quantities, i.e. the dangerous goods rules apply regardless of the quantity in the shipment.
Determine the class of dangerous goods and the quantity limits involved. The specific class of dangerous goods and the quantity to be shipped, affect how they must be declared, packaged, labelled and transported.

Regulations for the transport of dangerous goods

National and international regulations governing the transport of dangerous goods are all based on the UN classification system. These regulations are generally structured by the mode of transport:
More sources:
Check if your goods may be shipped by all modes of transport and how, especially when planning multimodal shipments, e.g. onward transportation from ports or airports by road or rail.

Trained personnel

Regulations require employees dealing with dangerous goods to complete appropriate training. Employees who deal with dangerous goods include those who:
  • Load and unload or handle dangerous goods
  • Prepare dangerous goods for transportation
  • Operate vehicles used to transport dangerous goods
  • Design, manufacture, fabricate, inspect, recondition, maintain, repair or test packages or packaging components used to transport dangerous goods
If you ship goods internationally, check if you are required to have a dangerous goods safety adviser (DGSA). This may not be necessary if you:
  • Only transport dangerous goods in “limited quantities”
  • Only occasionally engage in the carriage, loading or unloading of dangerous goods posing low risk
Ensure that your employees and the employees of your service providers have completed the appropriate training for the transport of dangerous goods.

Documentation and paperwork

Proper documentation is a must for all dangerous goods shipments. Missing documents or hidden errors could cause shipment delays – or worse, serious incidents.

Document checklist

  • Dangerous Goods Note/Declaration: This is a legal requirement for transporting goods by air or sea. The person responsible for signing the Dangerous Goods Note/Declaration is required by law to have completed the appropriate training
  • Materials safety data sheet (MSDS): Can be obtained from the original manufacturer. Not always required, but may be asked for as part of the booking procedure
  • Commercial invoice
  • Packing list
  • Shipper’s letter of instruction
  • Certificate of origin: sometimes required
  • Additional documents that may be needed: Weathering Certificate, Certificate of Analysis (CoA), Competent Authority Approval (CAA)
Non-compliance can be costly, and there have been cases where companies were penalised for incorrect paperwork:
  • A major retailer faced fines of $144,000 due to improper shipping paper declarations for the dangerous goods in its retail-sized bottles of nail polish and sunblock.
  • A leading pharmaceutical distribution company received a $91,000 fine for an undeclared shipment of skincare products containing alcohol.
Check that you have all the proper documents in place when shipping dangerous goods. Involve the recipient by giving all details prior to the shipment. This enables them to work with local agencies in the destination country and ensure a smooth process.
Know when your responsibilities as a shipper start and end. Check out DSV’s expert insights on Incoterms.

Packaging and labelling

Under the UN classification system for dangerous goods, approved boxes and labels with the legally required markings must be used to facilitate safe transport.
The regulations require that packaging must meet or exceed minimum standards of performance before it can be authorised for the carriage of dangerous goods.
Freight forwarders and logistics providers can assist with the transport of dangerous goods. They have trained personnel and the benefit of practical knowledge and experience. They can build on their good relations with airlines and shipping lines and are able to secure priority space for dangerous shipments. However, it is ultimately the customer who holds legal liability, so be sure that your documentation is in order and that you comply with all laws and regulations when shipping dangerous goods.

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