Placarding/Safety Marks and Their Reason for Being


By Rex Railsback, Tech. Trooper, Kansas Highway Patrol

Visibility and display of placards has consistently been the third most-written HazMat violation for the past three years, the HazMat Committee feels that this article is worth publishing again.


The HazMat/Dangerous Goods placard/safety mark that we use and see today began in the 1970s due to a hazmat tragedy in Norwich, CT in the 1960s. As a result of this tragedy and others, the modern hazmat regulations in the U.S. were born in the mid-1970s. The requirements included the creation of the diamond-shaped and color-coded hazmat placards that help us identify hazardous materials shipments today.

In the 1990s, HM181, and then the HM215 series of final rules, started to harmonize the U.S. hazmat regulations with the UN Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods—Model Regulations. This harmonization further refined hazmat placards and continues to do so today.

The hazmat/dangerous goods placard/safety mark’s reason for being is to be a communication device that helps communicate the type of hazard one might encounter of a dangerous good during transportation. This is true whether you’re a first responder, shipper, carrier, driver or enforcement officer.

Since hazard communication is the primary purpose of the hazmat/dangerous goods placard/safety mark, let’s look at an enforcement practice that is stringent enough to ensure the placard/safety mark effectively communicates the hazards they represent without going to such extremes that an undue burden is placed on the shipper and/or motor carrier. In other words, use a common sense enforcement approach.

Placarding and safety mark violations are some of the most commonly cited for hazmat/dangerous goods shippers/carriers. The most contentious violations deal with the display and color requirements. We know that citing violations for placards that misrepresent or are missing is a given, and is fairly straight forward when it comes to the question—is it or is it not a violation? However, those violations dealing with the correct color of a placard (faded) or whether the placard is displayed with the text reading horizontal left to right (square on point) are not as cut and dry, but rather in a gray area when citing for a violation. With these more contentious violations, maybe enforcement should ask the question—is it still performing its primary purpose of communicating the hazard?

When looking at the color of placards/safety marks, both U.S. and Canadian regulations reference appropriate Hazardous Materials Label and Placard Color Tolerance Chart, or as an alternative, the PANTONE® formula guide coated/uncoated, as specified for the placard/safety mark colors. When looking at these color guides, one would see a variance within each color range to a point that placards from two different suppliers may appear to have different shades, hues or tones and, yet, meet the regulations. One might want to cite someone if placards appear to be different shades (see photo on the right), but unless that enforcement person has the previously mentioned color chart or formula guide, and then knows to which standard the placard/safety marks were manufactured, I would be cautious before citing a violation unless that enforcement person can clearly articulate how the placard/safety mark no longer meets the required color. I am not saying to not enforce that pink shaded flammable placard, but as a friend of mine once said, “no one knows your lack of knowledge, until you put it in writing.” In the end, I would say if it is supposed to be red and it still looks red, is it not performing its purpose for being and communicating the hazard it represents?


Placards appear to be different shades.

The second contentious placard/safety mark violation would be that the placard/safety mark is not displayed with the text horizontal, reading left to right or, in other words, the placard/safety mark is not displayed square on point. Once again, if we look to the strict letter of the regulations—if a placard/safety mark is not displayed with the text horizontal in reference to the transport vehicles frame, then that would technically be a violation. Now let’s stop and think, how far off horizontal/square on point would a placard/safety mark need to be to lose its effectiveness as a hazard communication device; ¼ inch, ½ inch, ¾ inch or maybe even 1 ½ inches? I don’t really start to look at this issue being a violation until the placard/safety mark is probably getting closer to 2 ½ to 3 inches off horizontal/square on point, but that is me. I know a placard/safety mark displayed on its side is definitely a violation, but if you look at the picture on the next page with the non-horizontal placard/safety mark, I don’t think many of us would guess that it measured 1 7/8 inches off horizontal. I performed the HM/DG inspection in which the picture was taken, and I did not list it as a violation.


How far off horizontal/square on point would a
placard/safety mark need to be to lose its
effectiveness as a hazard communication device?

Some of you reading this may think I did the carrier and safety a disservice and others may agree with me for not listing the placard/safety mark as a violation. Although the regulations are printed in black and white, and often seem written without roadside enforcement in mind, we all know there is plenty of gray areas that cannot be put into the written regulation. I have always tried to look at the big picture and the purpose of CMV roadside inspections. That big picture would be to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. The roadside inspection helps to accomplish this through verification of compliance and safety education. With that in mind, I try to further apply some common sense to the enforcement equation and think at what point would education alone be as/or more effective than education and enforcement. That thought process becomes one of the biggest challenges for inspectors and is difficult to teach in the classroom and/or during the OJT phase of certification.

In the end, I am not saying, “don’t enforce the regulations,” but to think about the gray areas that cannot be written into the regulations by those who have little to no roadside experience, and try to apply common sense into your enforcement practices. Think about the purpose of placards/safety marks and the ultimate goal of reducing crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. Don’t think about how many violations you can find. Although most Hazardous Material/Dangerous Good loads do not lead to crashes, they certainly can enhance the consequences or hinder the mitigation of a crash. So, during your enforcement efforts, keep in mind if that dull red or slightly crooked placard would impede the mitigation and/or heighten the consequences of a crash. End of Story