The need to transport dangerous goods is familiar but the landscape of what is being moved and the regulations surrounding them is shifting. Mario Pierobon reports.
The types of dangerous goods being flown today have evolved in recent times. There has also been an increase in lithium batteries being shipped by air in line with the rise of e-commerce. Nowadays, lithium batteries are being used as temperature loggers for pharmaceutical shipments. In addition, competency-based training and assessment (CBTA) and safety management systems (SMS) have also emerged as major factors in cargo handling.
The term ‘lithium battery’ refers to a family of different chemistries, comprising many types of cathodes and electrolytes. For the purposes of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Dangerous Goods Regulations, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods By Air, they are separated into lithium metal batteries and lithium-ion batteries.
While the former are normally primary (non-rechargeable) batteries that have lithium metal or lithium compounds as an anode, the latter – sometimes known as Li-ion batteries – are a type of secondary (rechargeable) battery commonly used in consumer electronics.
Indeed, consumer demand for lithium batteries is growing exponentially as these batteries are the primary power source of many personal and portable electronic devices. “With a short product life cycle, these devices require fast transportation and so air freight is the primary method of shipping them around the world,” says Smiths Detection’s global director aviation Richard Thompson.
Lithium batteries are classified as dangerous goods because of the potential for these batteries to ignite, and this risk is even greater with low-quality batteries. Since 2006 there have been more than 300 recorded incidents of smoke, heat, fire and even explosion resulting from lithium batteries in air freight as well as hold baggage, according to Thompson. “Lithium batteries require specialised handling given their volatility and the grave threat they pose to the aviation sector – and there are stringent IATA regulations that must be adhered to in order to avoid hefty fines,” he says.
Ahmed Elias, head of training at Jordan-based Total Aviation Training, says the importance of lithium batteries has increased during the last couple of years, driven by customers’ demand to travel with their equipment on board (mobile phone, laptops, tablets, e-cigarettes, mobility aids such as hoverboards or wheelchairs), trade of such equipment and devices (import/export as cargo) and the need for entertainment devices onboard aircraft. “Operators and airlines are required to improve their safety procedure to mitigate the risks arising from the use of such devices and equipment,” he notes.
In parallel, the lithium battery industry is working on new types of lithium batteries to reduce the risk of thermal runaway and fire events. A United Nations subcommittee of experts on the transport of dangerous goods is also working to identify whether there are better methods for the classification of lithium batteries that might take a more risk-based approach, according to IATA’s assistant director of cargo safety and standards David Brennan. “From the airline side there have been additional measures implemented to try to ensure that all lithium batteries offered for air transport are fully compliant with the regulations,” he says.
“The greatest risk for air transport is from shippers that offer lithium batteries that are not prepared in compliance with the regulations. This includes substandard and counterfeit batteries, which typically do not have the safety controls that apply to properly manufactured and tested lithium batteries.”
Detection and handling
Smiths Detection’s Thompson highlights that powerful and reliable artificial intelligence-trained algorithms can provide automatic
detection of lithium batteries and a broad range of dangerous, illicit and contraband goods ranging from flammable liquids and solids to liquified and compressed gasses.
“In view of high volumes and the need for speed of the air cargo industry, it is essential that screening is both highly efficient and effective,” he explains. “With extremely low false alarm rates, algorithmic detection capabilities can be used with conventional x-ray and explosives detection systems to significantly reduce the burden on image analysts, protect assets and, most importantly, increase the safety of personnel and aircraft.”
The lithium battery guidance document issued by IATA is constantly being kept up to date, and it is an important reference for cargo handlers. “This document covers the handling of lithium batteries in the complete supply chain and forms an integral part of our dangerous goods training programmes,” says Swissport’s global operations manager Andrew Wareham.
“Rules and regulations related to the handling of dangerous goods and these lithium batteries will continue to change and be fine-tuned. This only leads to a safer environment for our personnel to work in and a safer aviation industry.”
Dangerous goods training
With regard to training, IATA’s Brennan observes that the Covid-19 pandemic and the inability to gather in-person has shifted the focus on the delivery of dangerous goods training away from classrooms and instead to look at what can be achieved through virtual or digital training. “It is likely that this shift will continue, although there will always be a place for in-person classroom training”, he says.
At Swissport, most of the dangerous goods training still takes place in the traditional classroom environment and not on online platforms. “People are one of our core values and we believe the classroom environment enriches the learners’ experience and interaction on the subject matter,” says Wareham. “Conducting the training in the classroom increases the awareness of the importance of the correct handling of dangerous goods throughout our organisation. Of course, Covid-19 has an influence on how and how often we can conduct a classroom training.”
In the air transport industry, there has been a significant amount of work on developing provisions for competency-based training and assessment (CBTA) for dangerous goods. “CBTA was implemented in the ICAO Technical Instructions and IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations with effect from 1 January 2021, with a two-year transition period to allow regulatory authorities and industry time to adopt the new provisions,” explains Brennan. “CBTA focuses on the job function being undertaken and aims to ensure that the employee is provided with dangerous goods training and assessed as being competent to perform the function for which they are responsible.”
Mandatory training for all persons involved in the preparation, handling and carriage of dangerous goods has been a key element in the safety of air transport for many years. “The move to CBTA is an opportunity for companies to focus on the functions being performed and to really identify the competencies required for the job function. In this way dangerous goods training can be tailored to address the needs for the job function, improving the relevance of the training for the employee,” says Brennan.
There are some variations in terms of the regulatory ‘baseline’ for dangerous goods training, he notes. “For example, some states take the view that all persons handling cargo being offered for air transport must have a minimum level of dangerous goods training.
“This applies to persons employed by freight forwarders processing or handling what is offered as ‘general cargo’. The objective of this is to provide the knowledge and competence for the employees to be able to identify dangerous goods that have not been properly offered in accordance with the regulations: the so called undeclared dangerous goods,” he says.
Safety management systems
In addition to CBTA, the domain of cargo handling in recent years has benefited from SMS implementation. For airlines and ground handling agents, the introduction of SMS and the use of safety risk assessments provides a better focus on areas where there may be greater risk, which can be addressed through additional mitigations, according to Brennan.
“One of the key tools for this is a ‘no fault’ reporting system so any dangerous goods incidents can be reported without fear of reprisal,” he explains. “Reporting of such incidents provides an indication of the ‘health’ of the safety system and allows the company to identify the potential cause of the failure in the system. This could be the content of training, poor procedures, badly worded work instructions or other internal controls that can be revised to address the gap.
“The incident reporting may also identify that the failure is due to external entities that have insufficient safety controls. Here the airline and/or ground handling agent can implement additional mitigation measures to prevent recurrence. It is IATA’s view that an SMS approach should be applied across the entire air cargo supply chain. The earlier in the transport process that safety issues are addressed the better.”
According to Swissport’s Wareham, the biggest benefit to all within the industry will be data quality and digitisation. “Globally, we handle over half a million dangerous goods shipments on a yearly basis at Swissport; however, less than one per cent of these are tendered to us electronically with an eDGD (electronic dangerous goods declaration),” he reports. “Even though the eDGD was introduced a few years ago, the penetration of this on a global level is still limited.”