HazMat Transportation

Does Your Hazmat Shipment Qualify for a Special Permit?

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) recently issued a final rule codifying the provisions of nine special permits for companies that transport certain bulk explosives. What are special permits and what kind of flexibility do they offer for transporting hazardous materials? How is training handled under special permits? How is PHMSA moving toward applying that flexibility more widely?

What are special permits?

Special permits allow a company or individual to package or ship a hazardous material in a manner that varies from the regulations, provided an equivalent level of safety is maintained.  The PHMSA may also grant variances from the hazardous materials regulations (HMRs) if actions are taken in accordance with standards issued by competent international authorities, such as the International Maritime Dangerous Goods code or the International Civil Aviation Organization. 

Previous to HMR amendments in 2005, what we now call special permits were known as “exemptions.”


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When a company is granted a special permit, it receives a special permit authorization letter along with the special permit document itself. A new special permit may not exceed 2 years. Subsequent renewal applications may be granted for up to 4 years.

A word about training and special permits

If you are operating under a special permit, PHMSA has made it clear that unless the special permit itself provides otherwise, you are required to provide the applicable hazardous materials training for employees handling hazardous materials shipments. And there can be no shortcuts.

In an interpretation letter, PHMSA replied to a query asking if the following methods were individually acceptable to meet HMR training requirements under a special permit:

  • Reading the permit and signing a document stating this was done;
  • Attending a formal briefing where the requirements and conditions of the special permit are described;
  • Participating in hands-on situations where the requirements and conditions of the special permit are provided; or
  • Attending structured classroom training.

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PHMSA answered that the methods as outlined were not acceptable because targeting only the special permit provisions omit other required HMR training elements. Although hands-on or classroom training would be acceptable methods, the company must ensure that all required HMR training is included and that the special permit training was sufficiently comprehensive to enable the hazmat employee to perform assigned hazmat duties.

In addition, simply reading or describing the training requirements specific to the special permit is not sufficient in most cases to ensure understanding by the employee and could result in significant gaps in training.

Move toward codification

By incorporating special permits into the HMRs, PHMSA eliminates the need for numerous requests to renew special permits and approvals and reduces paperwork burdens.

Under a plan developed in 2010, PHMSA is in the process of reviewing all active special permits and identifying those that should be incorporated in the HMRs, while noting that not all special permits are appropriate for incorporation.