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When Things Go Wrong: Lessons Learned About Aviation and Hazardous Materials

By Sonia Irusta
Bureau of Dangerous Goods, Ltd.

Hazardous materials pose a serious risk if regulations are not followed. Sadly, this danger is not abstract: hazardous materials incidents have resulted in extensive damage and even death. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reinforced this harsh reality with updates to a timeline of such incidents on its website, simply and starkly titled “When Things Go Wrong.” Here is some information on the events described in this timeline and the role that hazmat employees have in preventing similar tragedies.

“When Things Go Wrong” details 18 points in the past half-century when aviation accidents occurred while hazardous materials were onboard an aircraft. The report describes each incident in some detail, including the warning signs, the probable cause, and the results. All of them are unique – different airlines, locations, materials involved, and outcomes. In some cases, planes were safely evacuated. In others, the passengers and crew were not so fortunate. The common denominator in each is the presence of hazardous materials.

The earliest incident described in the timeline occurred in 1973 when three people perished in a Pan Am plane in Boston after improperly packaged acid leaked and caused a chemical reaction. The last entry, a massive fuel spill inside a Boeing aircraft, occurred in 2017. This recent incident, and the five others that have occurred since 2011, demonstrate that incidents involving hazardous materials are not a bygone danger from a less enlightened past. They can happen even today.

One of the more notable aviation accidents happened on May 11, 1996. ValuJet Airlines Flight 592 crashed in the Florida Everglades a few minutes after taking off from Miami. All 105 people onboard were killed. The National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) determined the probable cause of the accident was a fire in the plane’s cargo compartment that was started by one or more oxygen generators improperly stored as cargo.

According to the NTSB, another contributing factor was ValuJet’s failure to ensure that both ValuJet and contract maintenance facility employees were aware of the carrier’s “no-carry” hazardous materials policy and had received appropriate hazardous materials training.

The events leading up to each of these disasters were caused, or at least exacerbated, by the violation of hazmat regulations. Some, such as the infamous Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 and 2010’s UPS Flight 6, were destroyed as a result of chemical reactions involving lithium batteries. Others, such as 1999’s Uni Airlines Flight 873, happened because improperly packaged flammable liquids leaked and ignited. While each incident in the timeline is unique, each presented an opportunity to learn.

You’ll find incriminating terms scattered throughout the Probable Causes sections in each entry, such as “undeclared hazardous materials”, “improperly prepared container”, “failure to properly identify and package”, and more. These attributions highlight the critical role that hazmat employees (as well as passengers) have in the prevention of these accidents. Complying with hazmat regulations is not about following orders for the sake of following orders. It is about ensuring that people stay safe during the handling and shipping of the most dangerous materials.

Sonia Irusta is a highly accomplished business and technical professional instrumental in domestic and international transportation solutions for shippers, freight forwarders and carriers. She can be reached at Bureau of Dangerous Goods (609) 860.0300 Ext. 327 or via E-mail 

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