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I had just informed my son that for the second time in his 15 years of life, I was about to move him to a new city and a new school. “Finally used to things here”, are you kidding me? We’d been in that city for 10 years, and that school district for 9 years, so it took him nearly a decade to adjust? As I was about to point out his long-term friends, his athletic career, and his moving into his current level of school with and at the same time as all the local-born students, I received a gentle nudge from my wife. “Easy”, she whispered, “he’s just nervous about change. It’s normal”. Told you I married up.

Isn’t it normal for us all to have a bit of concern about impending change? Sure, it can be exciting, but it can also cause discomfort, uncertainty, and most importantly, require a period of adjustment. Whether one is getting used to a new home, a new job, new teachers, new friends, a new climate, or new rules, change can require time before comfort and efficiency are restored. Now, while blind-folded, I could find the light switch in my bathroom in just one touch, but in my first week in the house there was often some nocturnal fumbling trying to restore light.

It’s not just unfamiliar faces, buildings, or streets that may need time for adjustment, new regulations also require some transition time. Even a trainer who makes a living off regulatory change is likely to have some trepidation about whether she’s (or he’s) overlooked an important change, or whether her (his) method of conveying the impact of the changes will be effective. Clearly, most regulators understand this, because most regulators specifically allow shippers, carriers, trainers, enforcement, and packaging suppliers a transition period in which to get adjusted to new changes. But equally as clearly, the regulators (and to be fair, to some extent the regulated) cannot agree upon what a reasonable transition period is.

ICAO (or do we blame this one on IATA) doesn’t seem to think much time is needed to adjust to biennial regulatory change. Usually, we get a month or so from when a new edition of the regulations comes off the presses, until January 1st when the changes must be complied with. On the other hand, comparing IATA’s transition period to IMO’s transition period is like comparing the speed of a trans-Pacific air flight to the speed of a trans-Pacific slow steamer. The IMDG Code allows a full year for the impact of regulatory changes to be evaluated, addressed, communicated, and complied with. Lest we think that discussion of an ‘appropriate’ transition period is as simple as 1 month versus 13 months, the US DOT (via their PHMSA) should be considered. Their transition periods range from ‘thou shall comply today’ to more than 5 years. Certainly there’s something to be said for giving consideration to the different amounts of time needed to adjust to different regulatory changes. Yet, it does seem a bit absurd to conform to some nearly identical (if not identical) regulatory changes at different times for different modes or different locations.

But all of these, at least from the perspective of this porch swing, miss the most important connection. If the regulations change, how are any workers, whether carriers, shippers, enforcement, or package testers, expected to be able to comply without training in what the newest regulations are? Do we, regulated and regulators and trainers, all believe that it is reasonable and safe to train on regulatory changes 22 or 23 months after they’ve been introduced? Can’t we now ‘officially’ stay in compliance by re-training every two years, even if that two year period lags the biennial updates by a year-and-a-half or more?

Sure, one could argue that the two year re-training requirement can be re-set by ‘significant’ changes to the regulations, but if we truly paid attention to that provision, wouldn’t almost all air shippers and air carriers have been re-set to re-training in only December of even years by now? Wouldn’t all the ocean carriers and ocean shippers have been re-set to re-training only in odd numbered years? Or has there never been a ‘significant’ change to the regulations, with all changes being minor and incremental? Hah, let’s forget I asked that last question.

It seems to me that consideration should be given to harmonizing transition periods (I refuse to believe that air personnel all learn 13 times faster than ocean personnel), and that the periodic re-training requirements should be tied to the harmonized transition periods. After all, transition is when re-training is needed the most. And re-training should be completed before the ‘new’ ways of compliance become the only ways of compliance.

Let’s not allow transportation workers to remain ‘used to’ non-compliant ways of doing things, even if it does force us all to adjust to change on the same schedule.

Written 6/01/2012 for HCB Magazine