HAZMAT is one of the most confusing subjects among expedite drivers. But it doesn't need to be.

In order to haul HAZMAT you must have a CDL with a HAZMAT Endorsement, right? Most people, when they hear the term “HAZMAT” they think “endorsement,” because you need the HAZMAT endorsement to haul HAZMAT. This can be a source of great confusion among drivers of all types of vehicles, because it depends. Sometimes you need the endorsement, sometimes you don’t. It depends on the definition of hazardous material, and on who is defining it.

Hazardous Material is defined by the Secretary of Transportation as any “particular quantity or form” of a material that “may pose an unreasonable risk to health and safety or property,” or the environment. The Secretary is required by law (49 U.S. Code § 5103) to designate any such material as hazardous, which is listed on the Hazardous Materials Table. The table can be found in the Hazardous Materials Compliance Handbook available at most truckstops, and online in the Electronic US Code of Federal Regulations.

Anything listed on the Table of Hazardous Material is indeed hazardous, but being on the table doesn’t in and of itself mean it requires a CDL with a HAZMAT endorsement to haul, as simply being on that table isn’t the requirement for having the endorsement. The key is the “particular quantity or form” of the material, as some materials are not hazardous at all, in certain quantities, and do not pose an unreasonable risk to health, safety or property. The requirement of having the HAZMAT endorsement is…

383.93(b) Endorsement descriptions. An operator must obtain State-issued endorsements to his/her CDL to operate commercial motor vehicles which are:
(4) Used to transport hazardous materials as defined in § 383.5,

OK, so now you need to know what the actual definition of “hazardous material” is as defined in § 383.5. Rather than it being some common sense definition, or what you think it should be, they definite it so there is no room for doubt.

383.5 Hazardous materials means any material that has been designated as hazardous under 49 U.S.C. 5103 and is required to be placarded under subpart F of 49 CFR part 172 or any quantity of a material listed as a select agent or toxin in 42 CFR part 73.

So, you need a CDL with a HAZMAT endorsement to haul hazardous material, but only that material which is on the Table of Hazardous Material and which requires placarding. If it doesn’t require placarding, you don’t need a CDL, and you don’t need the endorsement. It’s really that simple.

Placards are the large diamond-shaped signs which go on the outside of the vehicle that indicate the Hazard Class of the material being transported. Placards should not be confused with the similar-looking diamond shaped labels which can be found on the packaging of hazardous materials. The labels are strictly to identify the material, nothing else. The HAZMAT endorsement is tied strictly to the placarding requirement of vehicles and have nothing to do with the labeling of packaging. Just because the freight has little placard-looking diamonds on them does not mean you need an endorsement to transport those packages. Do not be afraid of the labels, because they don’t mean anything with respect to whether or not you need an endorsement.

Hazardous Material is broken down into different Hazard Classes. Explosives are one class, poisons are another, flammable liquids are another, etc. Placards are chosen according to the two tables found in § 172.502. (Cornell University Law School) or (PDF from the Government Printing Office), or on Page 38, give or take a page, in the Hazardous Materials Complainace Handbook.

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Table 1 lists categories of hazardous material which require placarding no matter what amount of material is being hauled. Any quantity of hazardous material covered by Table 1 must be placarded, which means you must have a CDL with a HAZMAT endorsement to haul it.

Table 2 also lists categories of hazardous materials and the placarding requirements, but there are some exceptions. The big one is, when hazardous materials covered by Table 2 of this section are transported by highway or rail, placards are not required on a transport vehicle which contains less than 454 kg (1001 pounds) aggregate gross weight of hazardous materials covered by Table 2.

Another exception is Class 9. Class 9 doesn’t require placarding, regardless of quantity, for domestic shipments, unless it is in bulk quantity (which ain’t gonna happen on a cargo van).

And as we know, if placards aren’t required on the vehicle, then neither is the endorsement. So, a material may be listed on the Hazardous Materials Table, and the packaging may have pretty (or scary, depending) little diamond-shaped placard-looking labels, but unless it is a Table 1 material, or a Table 2 material which weighs 1001 pounds or more, it is not HAZMAT which requires an endorsement or placarding, and you don’t have to give it any more thought or precautions than you do for any other freight.

There are a handful of carriers who prefer, for whatever reason, to not put anything listed on the Hazardous Materials Table on a truck if the driver doesn’t have a HAZMAT endorsement, even for Table 2 freight that doesn’t require it. But that’s a carrier requirement, not an FMCSA requirement. There are also a small number of shippers who require a HAZMAT endorsement even for drivers picking up non-placardable freight. This is usually because with the endorsement you’ve had the FBI background fingerprint check which satisfies the shipper’s security requirements.

Expedite drivers, especially those in cargo vans without a CDL or a HAZMAT endorsement, need to be aware of the above basic HAZMAT transport rules, rather than relying solely on dispatch or some shipping clerk that may or may not be correct. If you don’t have an endorsement, you certainly don’t want an untrained shipper loading you with Table 1 material, thinking you can haul it just because it is less than 1000 pounds. Nor do you want to freak out because the 5-gallon bucket of paint you’re about to be loaded with has a Class 3 Flammable HAZMAT label on it.

At the very least you should familiarize yourself with Table 2 materials, knowing that you can transport those materials provided they weigh 1000 pounds or less, and know that anything not on Table 2 is off limits without an endorsement. Get a copy of the Hazardous Materials Compliance Handbook and the Emergency Response Handbook from the Safety Department at your carrier or a truckstop. There is also an excellent smartphone app called Cargo Decoder for Android phones, and Cargo Decoder Plus for the iPhone, which contains hazardous material information, the hazards of the material, and emergency response information for the material. Even if you don’t have a CDL and don’t want one, I would still recommend studying the Hazardous Material section of the CDL Driver’s Handbook of your state, as if you were going to test for it, and then take any number of the free, online HAZMAT endorsement practice tests. If you do that, you’ll know. You’ll know what you can and cannot haul, you won’t be freaking out and turning down loads just because they have HAZMAT labels on the packaging, and you won’t be left at the mercy of dispatchers and shippers who might not know. You will also be better aware of what those placards mean on the trucks next to you on the highway, why you’d want to give them a little extra room, and how to react during an emergency.