Sunday, January 15, 2006

Danger, Will Robinson!

Believe it or not, there is a group of regulations covering the transport of rectal thermometers by air.

How do I know this? Because I spent Saturday attending a training session in order to be certified as a Dangerous Goods shipper/handler.

Rectal thermometers are Dangerous Goods? Yes. Because they contain mercury, which is a dangerous chemical. Well, element actually.

Wanna know what the regulation is concerning the transport of rectal thermometers by air? I haven’t got the slightest idea, even though it was one of the examples we went through. However, the book of regulations is more than 600 pages long. (It’s not all regulations, but classification lists, categories, instructions for packing and labelling.) It’s a set of prescriptions devised by and for obsessive/compulsive bureaucrats who have concluded that no stone can be left unturned in the hunt for sources of danger or mishap. It’s designed by the same kind of people as those who insisted we rip up the playgrounds and monkey bars in parks because kids might get hurt.

And it’s used by airline shippers to play games with unsuspecting customers to throw monkey wrenches into their business. The regulations are so detailed that it’s easy to make a mistake. And the smallest mistake will result in your shipment being refused by the airlines. For example, every dangerous chemical has been assigned a classification number by the UN. When filling out your “Shipper’s Declaration for Dangerous Goods”, you must include this number. But not just the number. If you don’t put the letters UN in front of the number, your shipment will be refused. If you use the word “carton” instead of box, your shipment will be refused. If your declaration form does not have red hatch marks down both sides, with the hatch marks facing in the proper direction, your shipment will be refused. Some shipments require special UN-approved packaging. If you cover up the little UN symbol on the packaging, you’ve committed a crime.

These are all real examples of how detailed the instructions just for filling out the form are.

But I am being a bit hyperbolic. There are good reasons for extra scrupulosity when it comes to Dangerous Goods. They’re not called dangerous for nothing. Especially when it comes to air travel. I didn’t quite get the details, but it seems that the premise for the Tom Hanks movie Castaway was based on a FedEx plane which crashed because of an inappropriate shipment of dangerous goods. And one of FedEx’s rules now is that all Shipper’s Declarations must be typewritten or computer-generated.

So, back to the rectal thermometers. No, I can’t tell you the exact method of packing and labelling them so they can be shipped safely. But I have a pretty good idea now of where and how to find out.

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