Changing Regulations Regarding Shipping Lithium Batteries Present Unique Hazards for Shippers, Carriers and Receivers

The world of Dangerous Goods (DG) shipping is complex and ever-changing. Take for example the changing regulations regarding shipping lithium batteries. While lithium batteries have delivered superior performance and reliability in an endless array of applications, the same technology that makes them so useful also presents unique hazards for shippers, carriers and receivers.

Several significant incidents involving fires in both cargo and passenger aircraft have been attributed to shipments of lithium batteries. As a result, regulations in the U.S. and around the world are being revised to enhance the safe transportation of lithium batteries. The added complexity of the regulations could result in an increase of undeclared and noncompliant cargo. Education, outreach and enforcement of existing regulations are key elements to reducing risk and the likelihood of incidents.

Before PHMSA published the final rule on lithium batteries, with mandatory compliance on February 6, 2015, the regulations for shipping lithium batteries were pretty lenient with regard to shipping by road and by air because they offered broad exceptions to the labeling, packaging and documentation requirements for smaller shipments. So, there were a lot of companies that could "fly under the radar" with excepted packages. Now, the regulations have been aligned for road, sea and air. While that means more regulations for U.S. shippers to navigate, it simplifies things, really, especially with international shipments. Companies don’t need two ways of doing things, and they don’t have to maintain two training programs.

The biggest single change is the elimination of the exception for packages with no more than 12 lithium batteries or 24 lithium cells. Previously, if a package contained no more than 12 batteries or 24 cells, no hazard mark or documentation was required—except that packages containing lithium metal batteries required the PROHIBITED ON PASSENGER AIRCRAFT mark, and packages of "medium" cells and batteries required the PROHIBITED ON AIRCRAFT AND VESSEL mark. The new regulations no longer include this 12 battery/24 cell relief.

These regulations affect just about any company, not just those that ship lithium batteries as a commodity. Lithium batteries are all around us—cell phones, laptops, tablets, toys, medical devices, cameras—they’re everywhere. Companies that were shipping excepted quantities are going to need to reclassify their products, train their employees and put new operating procedures in place to comply. Even companies that simply need to ship new cell phones or laptops to field agents will need guidance on packaging, labeling and documenting these shipments now.

Reverse logistics are also affected by these changes. If the consumer has to return something containing a lithium battery to a supplier, manufacturer or retailer, that’s hard to control, and a company is not liable if the consumer ships something back improperly. Ideally, the product packaging should be compliant for returning the item and contain the necessary labeling and documentation, but companies should at least give consumers a warning that they’re shipping something with a lithium battery, and that requires extra attention.

The regulations are constantly changing, and they’ll continue to change in the years to come. Right now, PHMSA is working on rules, which would further harmonize lithium battery requirements with international standards beyond what was recently adopted. The UN Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods recently adopted significant changes to the requirements for shipping lithium batteries including revising hazard communication (e.g. multimodal lithium battery handling label and revised Class 9 label) that will come into force from January 2017. Shippers, carriers, manufacturers—everyone in the business of shipping DG needs to stay up to date on what’s going on in the industry.

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