When I was very young I was good at math, and reassured by math. Math had one, single correct answer to every problem, and every other answer was wrong. A train leaves town at 1:00 going X speed, and at 1:30 another train leaves the same town, on the same track in the same direction, going at faster speed Y. What time will it be when the second train catches the first train? Of course, like most other people, I’d break into a cold sweat at having to solve that kind of word problem, but I’d be reassured by two things. First, I knew that there was only one right answer, that the later train couldn’t catch the earlier train a two different times, and second, because of my faith in my teachers I believed the problem was solvable or they wouldn’t have given it to me. Armed with my belief in my superiors and comforted by knowing that there was an answer, I could overcome my nerves and, often, solve the problem. When the teacher wrote the answer on the board, I either had the right time or I didn’t. No way that I could have had a different answer than the teacher, and we both be right.

So, whether math gave it to me, or my already having it made me better at math, I had a strong tendency to view things in black and white. I liked overtime in sports, because someone had to win and someone had to lose. The politician that favored to win office was a good guy and all his ideas were right, while his opposition was black-hatted and to be opposed at every turn. Yep, black vs. white, right vs. wrong, everything clearly defined; that was the way I liked things.

Then, algebra cracked me, and Heisenberg broke me. Imagine looking through a rifle scope, and seeing the cross hairs, looking like the X-axis and Y-axis of graph paper. Now imagine a giant letter “U” superimposed over top of it. And someone asks you where the “U” meets the horizontal crosshair? Augghhh… The “U” crosses the hair twice, once at the left side of the “U”, and once again at the right side of the “U”. Slightly more advanced algebra sometimes gave TWO right answers to a single problem! Okay, maybe I could have dealt with that, since all the other answers were wrong, and I could still determine whether my answers matched the two correct answers. But then one of my teachers asked me where an electron was. You know atoms have protons and (usually) neutrons in their center, with electrons somewhere outside the center. But, where outside their center? Well, Heisenberg said that the act of observing the electron moves it. In other words, we can’t ever know exactly where an electron is. So all the fancy quantum physics equations can never give us an exact answer to precisely where an electron is, just an approximate idea of where it is most likely to be. Double augghhh!! Triple Augghhh!!! Welcome to grey.

After a while (many years), I found a refuge in Dangerous Goods. Trust the regulators. Follow the rules. If you did, you were a white-hatted, compliant, good guy, and if you didn’t… Well, wrong, black-hatted, non-compliant, and unsafe, is not what any of us aspire to. But I should have known. I soon found out regulators don’t know it all. Hey, most regulators seek comments, which seems to indicate they realize they don’t know it all. And there are some regulators I have a great deal of respect for; those that actually pay attention to the comments, study them, and try to adjust the proposed rules to make sense for everybody. But Dangerous Goods aren’t black and white to me anymore, nor is my faith in the regulators as strong as it once was, and so there is grey in this corner of the world as well.

These days I mostly classify, or give training to shippers, but sometimes I consult. And consulting has helped me see things in a different way. The easy part of consulting is the black and white, what’s clearly allowed and what’s clearly prohibited. The tougher part is when a client has a situation or set of circumstances that the regulations didn’t foresee, or when the regulations aren’t black and white about an issue. Then, surprisingly, grey becomes my friend. Certainly, strong consideration is given to the intent of the rules, and to what is safe and low-risk, but also consideration is given to what is economically feasible, and how compliance can be achieved with minimum disruption to the client’s business. I won’t give my two best examples, as I take my client’s confidentiality seriously, but perhaps this slightly older example will help.

You know that when you fully comply with the conditions of an exception or a special provision, you are often released from ‘the rest of the regulations’. And ‘the rest of the regulations’ usually includes training. So, for a certain kind of DG, if you do a couple extra tasks and get out of the rest of the regulations, it appears you don’t have to train in how to recognize that certain kind of DG! Or, is it possible that maybe you do have to train to recognize that certain kind of DG, but you don’t have to train to recognize other DG? What exactly is meant by getting out of having to comply with ‘the rest of the regulations’? The regulations obviously intend that all employees know how to perform their specific tasks safely and compliantly, but does that have to be documented properly if ‘the rest of the regulations’ don’t apply? Depending upon the particular exception (or special provision) this can be a grey area. And you know what? If I asked the regulators, I could probably get a definitive answer, and remove the issue from grey, into black and white.

Now, suppose that my client has checks and procedures to make sure the exception gets used properly. But the client doesn’t specifically train in how to recognize that certain DG, nor does the client document the checks and procedures in the exact fashion the Dangerous Goods regulations normally require training documentation. The exception is complied with, the shipments are safe, and the intent of the regulations seems to be met. But maybe the client is in strict compliance with the regulations, and maybe the client needs to dot an ‘i’ or cross a few ‘t’s to achieve absolute compliance. I can make a reasonable argument for BOTH sides! There’s a possibility that either position is correct. We’re grey.

Or, I can ask the regulators, and narrow things down to just one black and white answer. Hey, that’s great if the answer is that the client can keep on doing what they’ve been doing. But if the answer comes back that extra training needs to be delivered, or that a new format of training documentation is required for dozens or hundreds of employees globally, then my client suffers economically for no gain in safety and no reduction of risk. Should I really ask the regulators to give me a black and white answer?

You can come to your own conclusion. But I will tell you that if my client is operating safely and meeting the apparent intent of the regulations and exceptions, that I have sometimes counseled staying cocooned silently in the grey, thus avoiding the possibility of an unpleasant black and white response to the unasked question.


Maybe I’m growing up, and gradually coming to terms with Heisenberg.

Written 1/23/2011 for HCB Magazine