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Sigh. Those words were often the prelude to a butt-kicking. Although now I am a fairly large man with a shaved head, and no one seems to want to mess with me, as a child I was scrawny, weak, and uncoordinated, so the butt about to be kicked was usually mine. It was possible, often but not always, to avoid the violence by just immediately turning around and walking away, even if my original destination was on the other side of the line. Once, I walked the long way around the school building though, attempting to approach my classroom by another route, only to find a new line drawn in front of me, so it wasn’t always possible to avoid trouble. Wiping the line out with the sole of my shoe only seemed to prolong the inevitable. “What line”, “this line”, “what line”, “this line”, “what line”,…, ad nauseum, only dragged out the feeling of dread. Smart aleck humor wasn’t much help either, but sometimes I did get a tiny bit of satisfaction from drawing an X on the line and announcing the line had been ‘crossed’. Cute, maybe, this bit of gallows humor, but it often only precipitated the immediate initiation of the dreaded butt-kicking. I was relieved to finally graduate from school, and later than that, finally grow large and strong enough to see the end of maliciously drawn, arbitrary lines. Yet there are still lines in my life.

These lines are usually so much easier to deal with, and in fact are often welcomed. Lines that delineate areas of responsibility can be quite helpful. My wife prepares the evening meals, and when I’m in town I scoop the cat poop from the litter box. If one of us crosses the line, and she scoops poop or I prepare my special bisketti dinner, neither of us gets upset. I line up prior to boarding an airplane, and any momentary disagreements about placement within the line are resolved by comparing boarding passes. On the roads, I stay on my side of the line, and hope and pray and trust that oncoming traffic stays on their side of the line. Shippers classify and pack, while carriers transport and deliver.

Um, well, maybe that last one isn’t the greatest example. Sometimes lines can be blurred, or even become grey areas. If a shipper places packages onto a pallet, completing a nice cube, and the lorry driver only applies the stretch wrap to hold the cube in place, who is responsible for separation and segregation of the packages on the pallet? Is it the shipper who put them there, or the driver who was to check before securing them there? If a shipper advance loads a trailer to facilitate a rapid transfer of possession when the driver shows up with the tractor, who must apply any required placards to the trailer? If the trailer door was left open to enable driver inspection of the load, does that change the placarding responsibility back from the shipper to the carrier? Yes, it can sometimes be difficult to draw a clear line between shared responsibilities, or between those assisting and those inspecting or approving.

Once upon a time a shipper offered a declared, self-heating material to an air carrier, which the carrier took as far as the airport. At that point the carrier asked the shipper for the self-heating test data. The shipper replied that they had the report, but that the report included economically valuable, sensitive, proprietary product formulation information, and that they would NOT provide a copy to the carrier. The carrier said they wouldn’t deliver then. The shipper said, “if you don’t deliver this, we’ll take all our business elsewhere”. This line, what line, this line, what line… Too late to make a long story short, the carrier delivered it.

When this situation was shared publicly, a lively on-line debate ensued, with one side declaring the carrier has a right to the data, as IATA specifically says carriers can ask for SDSs, and the other side insisting the signed certification on the Shipper’s Declaration should be sufficient. Personally, I wonder why the carrier questioned the classification in the first place? Certainly, as an industry, we all have a much more significant problem with undeclared DG than with over-classified DG. Was the carrier just unfamiliar with one of the rarer hazard classifications, and perhaps unsure of how to stow it, or having difficulty with the segregation requirements? Whatever the carrier issue was, it probably wasn’t a safety issue though, as they eventually transported it. It reminded me a bit of the rare occasions I avoided a childhood butt-kicking, when the line in the sand turned out to be unenforced.

Even now, months later, as I reflect on this from my porch swing, I ask myself if the carrier crossed a line. Or maybe it’s better to ask if the carrier drew a line? A line drawn at safety, or a line drawn at convenience?

Written 7/28/2013 for HCB Magazine