FedEx Refuses to Ship Empty Containers

Security theater at its finest:

Me [going into post-9/11, TSA-style super-dumbfounded mode]: So what you’re saying is you can’t ship any sort of containers, even if they’re empty? You know that we originally ordered these empty cans and jars from a company, and *they* shipped them to *us*.

FedEx guy: They must have used a different vendor [“vendor”? I can’t remember, some word like that, like a “service”].

Which I imagine he said because he couldn’t bring himself to say, “It’s the *words* that are *on* the containers that are dangerous”—even after I had opened them all and demonstrated the utter harmlessness/emptiness of the containers themselves.

Posted on January 17, 2007 at 1:35 PM64 Comments


Brandioch Conner January 17, 2007 2:07 PM

The scary words scare me. I will not ship anything with a scary word on it.

Here’s a simple solution.

#1. Wrap the containers in plain brown paper (or anything that won’t show the scary words through it).

#2. Box everything up before you go to the FedEx shop.

#3. Send someone else. The person might remember you and know that you have handled scary words in the past. People who handle scary words are scary and might be trying to ship more scary words. If possible, send someone who is female.

Remember, we aren’t breeding for intelligence anymore.

Ted Bundy (because names matter more than content) January 17, 2007 2:19 PM

Jeez, just go to a different FedEx office.

I might leave the label “Rocket Fuel” off, though. Just in case. Because, ya know, if I were gonna ship real C4 or nitroglycerine to my fellow terrorists, I’d be sure it was freakin’ labeled correctly, and not something like “tile adhesive” or “light corn syrup”.

Obviously, the original FedEx agent didn’t need to drink any of the Certainty product to be certain it looked like bomb-making materials. What a dope, but he’s probably not paid to think for himself.

Stu Savory January 17, 2007 2:23 PM

Meanwhile, you need to store all those empty jamjars someplace so no insects get in them. So go to the pet store and buy some ant racks 😉

nzruss January 17, 2007 2:37 PM

Perhaps the guy should ship the cans with the label on the inside. (and some tape so the customer can stick it on himself later)

Then use a sharpie to write on the outside “contains sticky tape and a label”.

not an x-ray technician January 17, 2007 2:53 PM

Would x-raying an empty jar with a label on it show the words on the label to the x-ray technician? That’s what the FedEx clerk said — “They would still x-ray it, and then you’d get a call when it was en route.”

merkelcellcancer January 17, 2007 2:58 PM

ATTN: Homelame Insecurity and TSA$$s you need snark-sniffing dogs to detect this stuff.

avery January 17, 2007 3:10 PM

The wonderful thing about a degree in chemistry is you can laugh and laugh about things people think are dangerous and things they think are safe. Then you realize they’re the ones who decide what goes in the cargo compartment of the next plane you’re going to be on.

David Donahue January 17, 2007 3:52 PM

What I am the only one with sympathy here for the poor FEDEX employee and their, in my mind, reasonable corporate policies?

The issue here is not “is it OK to ship water or air” but instead is “is it OK to ship packages with false, misleading or dangerous warning labels”.

If you were shipping actual dangerous chemicals or rocket fuel you would need real warning labels to indicate the special care and handling instructions. Everyone in the package delivery chain would have to be able to recognize these packages and have special training in their transport or at least the training to know how to call in specialty staff who have this training, flying them in if necessary.

Now imagine you’re shipping empty bottles (or books or whatever) with the Rocket fuel warning label on them. Does everyone in the FEDEX delivery chain have the training to recognize false / joke warning labels form real ones? Nitrogen sounds scary and kind of like Hydrogen if you have no knowledge of basic chemistry. Do you want every low-level FEDEX clerk making a judgment call on every label as to its authenticity and reasonableness?

From a business perspective, the havoc a falsely labeled package can wreak on a FEDEX sorting facility is significantly more expensive than the miniscule profit derived from accepting those packages.

If I ran FEDEX I’d have the (non-initial reception) sorting clerks keep an eye out for packages labeled with warning tags, just in case it really was properly labeled rocket fuel and the initially receiving clerk screwed up and mistakenly accepted it. If the tags identified the package as being particularly dangerous (for example: requiring high-temp safety gear and masks for handling, like this tag does), I’d call in a HAZMAT team to make a safety assessment and evacuate the area, until I “knew” it was safe.

Think about it. It’s much better to reject such packages. It’s the same issue* as checking pilots getting on planes for weapons, it’s not “can the pilot highjack or destroy the plane??? but “can you successfully train your weapon checking staff to tell the real pilot from a highjacker dressed as one???.

    • Assuming any weapons checks are reasonable, but if you do have them, they should be for everyone.


Camilo January 17, 2007 4:09 PM

I agree with you David, if I send a box with a misleading warning, it can be a trouble. But this is not the case, in this case the fake warnings won’t be vissible from outside.

PassALaw! January 17, 2007 4:11 PM

Keep in mind, compliance with onerous Federal regulations is not something that FedEx wants to do. Rather, FedEx knows that it will be faced with extraordinarily expensive litigation if it chooses NOT to implement some type of compliance system.

So FedEx policies are not the source of the problem here, are they. So what is the source of the problem? Where did the regulations come from?

Sounds to me like someone passed a BroadLaw™.

“Legislation: It’s the Only Soultion.”™

Davi Ottenheimer January 17, 2007 4:17 PM

Geez, that guy was lucky he was given a warning by the FedEx employee instead of shackled and sent off to Guantanamo. On the other hand, seems like FedEx just interfered with nabbing a potential terrorist and rounding up his threatening labels.

No joke, I just read about a woman who was actually put in jail and then kept there for three weeks after officials mistakenly thought that condoms of flour in her suitcase were filled with cocaine.

Geoff Lane January 17, 2007 4:18 PM

Some years ago, there was a popular range of ceramic mugs with the names of poisons stenciled on the side. I have one with “Strychnine” printed on it.

I guess this particular product range is dead?

Nope, not the design I have but…

Last century, you could buy an alarm clock that looked like a bomb complete with fake dynamite, batteries and wires. The timer was the clock. Surely that too must be a dead product?

But no, here is an example…

There is another one, even more realistic here…

There are others that can be found via Google.

These product can apparently be send via the post system or other overland delivery service???

DV Henkel-Wallace January 17, 2007 4:55 PM

I also agree with donahue.

When we moved into our lab space the previous tenant had been required to remove and remediate the nitrogen lines feeding into the lab (a bummer, because we had to just replace it all anyway). But though the hazmat guys from the county understood that it was safe, the wording of the law gave ’em no leeway.

Jilara January 17, 2007 5:00 PM

Security from the folks who brought you the airport security where the kid with the Edward Abbey book with the picture of the bomb on the cover was barred from flying.

Matt from CT January 17, 2007 5:22 PM

Another one to back up Donahue on this.

And you’ll probably find the regulations well pre-date 9-11. By the better part of a couple of decades.

I have someone come up to me with something labelled “Rocket Fuel” then tell me it’s sugar…I’d seriously consider punting it to the police to figure out instead of trying to figure out why I have something labelled “Rocket Fuel” (which personally, I’ve never seen beyond rocket motors on TV) but someone telling me it’s sugar.

FedEx (overnight) and UPS trucks are never placarded. Because they “trust” their users when they hand them a wrapped box have complied with the haz-mat shipping regulations and rules. If they now they’re handling a quantity that would require placarding, they’ll refuse the shipment.

For all the gory detail, there’s a link to FedEx’s 291 page long PDF of it’s Haz-Mat shipping guide.

You don’t shout “bomb” in an airport,
You don’t shout “fire” in a theater,
And you don’t bring a package that looks like a “hazardous material” to a shipping company and try to explain it really isn’t.

All of those will bring you unwanted negative attention.

AlexP January 17, 2007 5:34 PM

@Matt: sorry but you’re not getting the point here. The guy offered to empty the sugar from can! And even the empty – although filled with a tiny bit of neon ;-)) – wasn’t going to be shipped.

Welcome to the world of the mindless drones……

Matt from CT January 17, 2007 5:35 PM

For a bit of history:

Modern labelling of hazardous materials in shipment and improvements in container designs began in the 1960s, and accelerated through the 1970s and 1980s.

Since the late 1980s these regulations have remained relatively stable. One of my friends, who works for Connecticut’s State Haz-Mat agency, figures his department has gone from weekly “Level A” entries (the moon suits) to control spills in 1990, to maybe four times a year. Split that between fewer incidents due to better engineering and administrative controls, and the other half to effective administrative controls meaning stuff is properly labelled and they don’t have to go and assess a complete unknown.

The last significant haz-mat shipping snafu I can think of was ValuJet in the mid-1990s.

This is incident was not post 9-11 stuff.

Matt from CT January 17, 2007 5:39 PM

I’m fully getting the point —

What’s the guy going to do, go pour a substance I just saw labelled “Rocket Fuel” into my garbage can? Into my storm drain?

Do you know the disruption to business while the Haz-Mat team is evaluating the material that’s been dumped?

Sorry, the guy was who had the rectal crainal inversion was the guy bringing the mis-labelled containers to a shipping company and expecting them not to challenge them.

Can you imagine how much most of us would be mocking FedEx for being susceptible to a social engineering hack if someone shipped sugar labelled as rocket fuel by sweet talking the counter clerk?

Reality Check Folks!

This wasn’t theater. It was a really stupid customer.

Nick Lancaster January 17, 2007 6:28 PM

I’ll give the FedEx person a pass for having to make a snap judgment on the basis of clearly complex regulations against shipping hazardous materials, if he was afraid to accept them (and thus be held responsible), he should have said, “I’m sorry, I can’t accept those,” and not blame it on some wondrous x-ray machine that reads print.

Still, there’s got to be some level of common sense at which security concerns don’t shade over into the ludicrous. We’re willing to grant that terrorists will lie on a pilot’s license application, but we somehow assume they’ll all label their explosives properly?

The rule is always, “If you do the big stuff, don’t do the small stuff.” That is, if you’re making bombs (or meth, or other funny chemical experiments), you don’t take the canister labelled ‘U-235’ and ask the FedEx kid how to best ship it.

And if the shipper had prepared the parcel entirely by themselves and simply dropped it off, the fact remains the FedEx handler would have dutifully placed it in the queue. (There’s no ‘box must be left unsealed for final inspection’ rule that I’m aware of.)

It is the unreasonable fear, where an empty jar can be construed as a dangerous object, that is the key element here – the same wisdom that construed an attempt to formulate TATP into ‘bomb using a popular sports drink’. (And, hmm, whaddaya know, a bomb that wasn’t labelled ‘bomb’.)

We need to enable people to think and make critical decisions, but we’re also trying to absolve ourselves from any blame should things go wrong (even though this is, as President Bush has said, the Responsibility Era) … and live up to the illusion that we will always be right.

Neglected in this little drama is Bruce’s philosophy of fail SAFE, rather than fail BADLY.

That is, the FedEx person could make a reasonable judgment that the friendly person who even has proof that 826Seattle exists as a non-profit, and that they are a graphic designer selling mock products as a fundraiser … and the package would go through further examination elsewhere – perhaps a chemical sniffer (or an x-ray, which still won’t read labels) – and be capable of discerning sugar from granulated rocket fuel, or air from toxic gases.

THAT is what makes this security theater.

Anon January 17, 2007 6:34 PM

@ not an x-ray technician

Like everything, it depends on the materials (inks+paper). For instance, YooHoo [chocolate drink] used to show up quite clearly. (Though on medical X-rays, not airport rent-a-security.) (I know a few RNs [Registered Nurses]. They’ve seen it all!)

David Donahue January 17, 2007 7:14 PM

@To those saying that package should have been accepted if the tags were hidden inside the package:

The X-ray machine is only one example of the tests every package goes through. There are several conditions where FEDEX has to open your package for inspection (to determine if the drug/bomb sniffer test has a false positive on this package, for insurance processing in case of damage, for suspicion of illegal goods, etc.) if when opening the package a false or dangerous warning label is present and is now seen, you’re right back to the HAZMAT team deployment scenario.

Clearly common sense should be used in the case of a pack of hazmat labels or a coffee mug with a strychnine label on it, but fill it with a white granular power (sugar?) or even worse use the smoked glass sealed jars in the article and I wouldn’t want to be the one making that judgment call. It’s a little greyer in the case of empty jars with these tags, but I’d probably want a simple easily understood policy of “no false tags, even if not visible” than one that described the conditions under which they might be excepted.

The article writer probably simply didn’t have the reasoning explained to him nor probably did the FEDEX clerk. I can understand that, there are cases where explaining your reasoning exposes you to liability and / or negative press. Even if the clerk knew the reasoning I’m not sure I’d want my clerks training/chatting with the customers that long. Much easier to just “sorry, it’s against our rules, try the post office. NEXT!???

Wylie January 17, 2007 8:30 PM

“at the airport on the way home was made to throw away two cans of “antimatter” and a can of stuff supposed to turn you into a mermaid. I should have known better, I guess; antimatter is highly unstable!”

The comments are even better than the article itself.

Matt from CT January 17, 2007 11:02 PM

“We’re willing to grant that terrorists will lie on a pilot’s license application, but we somehow assume they’ll all label their explosives properly?”

The regulations, and most likely the internal FedEx rules, the guy was following were written well before Oklahoma City or WTC Bombing #1.

Yes, maybe it got a “terrorist” or “bomb” thrown in.

But the primary rule is about the shipping of hazardous materials.

And yes, FedEx & UPS & USPS tend to operate on a don’t ask (loudly) / don’t tell policy assuming they’ll never get a big enough batch of bad stuff to placard a load.

What’s the line here?

Why was a Security Guard recognizing someone and letting them through “bad” and a “social hack” yesterday…

And today a Clerk seeing “Rocket Fuel” on a label, is ridiculed for not taking that at face value and believing the guy who said, “No, no…it’s sugar.”

Irregardless of whatever was or was not in the rest of the cans, after the “It’s only sugar” it was rightfully all over for the guy.

Matt's Grammar Check January 17, 2007 11:04 PM

is ridiculed for taking that at face value and NOT believing the guy who said, “No, no…it’s sugar.”

Ralph January 18, 2007 1:01 AM

Defence 1. The Nuremberg Defence
“He was just doing what he was told/what regulations state/company policy.”

Defence 2. Selective denial
“But it might not have been sugar!”
(but he wouldn’t even ship AIR people)

Ridiculed for showing ZERO common sense – OR – wilfully choosing not to excercise it – OR – to follow instructions regardless of how stupid.

Headline should read: “Common sense – dead and buried in the USA”.

Or maybe: “FedEx policies protect millions from the evil axis of humour”.

aracne January 18, 2007 2:39 AM

I kind of understand the reasoning behind denying the shipping the “rocket fuel” and “O2” containers, even if it is kind of stupid… But the “certainty” one? What did he think it had inside?

Jan Egil Kristiansen January 18, 2007 3:48 AM

It’s perfectly logical from a debriefing survival point of view.

Say something bad happens at FedEx, and our FedEx guy is debriefed.

  • Have you noticed any unusual parcels?

Our guy does not want to answer: “Yes, some guy sent a box marked ‘rocket fuel’, but I’m pretty sure it was empty.” He will even feel bad about admitting that he refused the parcel without calling in the SWAT team.

No sense from society’s point of view, lots of sense for the individual employee.

X January 18, 2007 4:51 AM

A lot of explosives are based on nitrogen compounds.

When you find a charred bottle at the scene of an accident, with a big warning label, and all you can read is something-nitrogen-something….

Nick Lancaster January 18, 2007 5:32 AM

@ David Donahue:

Given that the crux of the matter is unclear thinking about security practices, I’m not sure that a ‘simple policy’ would be a solution. To wit, I again cite the alleged plot to smuggle TATP aboard flights in Britain … the simple policy was to deny everyone the ability to bring any liquids or gel-like substances aboard.

@ Matt From CT:

While restrictions against shipping hazardous materials have long been in place, it is the constant parading of fear in the wake of 9/11 that highlights the inadequacy of training, detection, and common sense employed.

— general comments —

The question remains whether there is some level at which FedEx employees can apply common sense and not get mired in the ‘we don’t want proof to come in the form of a mushroom cloud’ fantasies of a paranoid administration.

I would even suggest accepting said package, verifying the shipper’s address (by way of checking a driver’s license or other ID), and then quietly slap a ‘marked for further inspection’ sticker on the box. (We accept this behind-the-scenes screening of our luggage, for example – TSA can cut open the locks and leave us a ‘we searched your bag’ note.)

Yes, it’s conceivable that a terrorist could provide a fake address and present falsified ID, but the package would still be marked, still be inspected, and law enforcement would have a ready lead. (Not only a possible name and address, but a photo from a security camera, matched against the time-stamp of when the parcel was scanned into the system.)

Again, we need to think fail-safe and overlapping zones of defense. ‘Simple guidelines’ and the dumbing down of the system to indemnify people defeats the concept of vigilance; if people are afraid to be responsible for taking initiative and either sounding the alarm or not sounding the alarm … then they’ll err in favor of the opposite.

David (Toronto) January 18, 2007 5:35 AM

Life is full of odd moments 🙂

The customer should probably have sealed them up in advance and labeled them as “graphic art” “demonstration packaging”, etc. and there would have been no questions asked. Instead he drew attention to himself.

The poor FedEx guy was clearly a bit spooked. I suspect the sugar was the root cause. Consider, people pay shipping by weight. Why on earth would anyone pay to ship dead weight!? This would have to raise the clerks suspicions. Next, the “no it’s not rocket fuel, it’s sugar” follow-up. Hmmm, two strikes and thinking of failing safe.

Everything that follows is just a “dear in the headlights” reaction. Clearly the guy wasn’t making sense. He probably should have realized he was confused and called a coworker to sort things out. But then he’d have to admit confusion, possibly embarassing. Anonymous corporate stupidity is not (personally) embarassing. And in the entirely unlikely event this customer was up to something, the “bomb” goes off elsewhere. Again, not a personal liability.

But that’s the problem with human nature, we don’t always recognize when we are firing a few cylinders below potential. And in this case, the clerk is looking at the best of a no-win situation.

Now, terrorists and social engineers know this about human nature. If you don’t act oddly, you don’t get singled out.

(There was a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon about natures way of saying beware … 3 panels with things like Jelly Fish tentacles, blowfish, fish with sharp teeth and a 4th with a guy in a trench coat, inner tube dinosaur floaty, goggles, sub-machine gun, and swim fins standing on a street corner)

The terrorist was probably the little old lady posting the large box at the next wicket while all eyes were on the guy with the “rocket fuel”.

Steve January 18, 2007 5:40 AM

I don’t think this is security theatre, I think it’s just a questionable call.

Several people have argued that it’s reasonable for the FedEx guy to refuse to accept the “rocket fuel” container. Regardless of whether it has sugar in it, or is empty, there is a real (although small) chance that it will cause FedEx significant inconvenience. The package is opened (for whatever reason), and the warehouse staff are left thinking to themselves either, “what’s this white stuff labelled rocket fuel?”, or else, “where the hell has the rocket fuel got to?”. They don’t have the benefit of the customer’s explanation that he’s just kidding with them.

Next up was the chemical labelling. If you don’t understand chemistry, then a chemical label spells “warning”, because you don’t understand the label either. Who cares whether the jargon means “air”: it’s still jargon and thus is indistinguishable from jargon meaning “this will kill you in 2.7 seconds”. They’re forced to call someone who understands chemical labelling, to tell them whether it’s safe.

At this point, the customer is clearly a pain in FedEx’s ass. He’s demonstrated that he poses, not necessarily a security risk, but a risk of doing something which could well cause a commotion further down the shipping chain. It’s a reasonable choice (although probably not one I’d make myself) to stop listening to his explanations of why these labels are all perfectly OK. Just get rid of him, and hope he learns the lesson that he can’t ship stuff with labels on that confuse people.

It’s a shame that people don’t know that 80% of air is nitrogen, but just for once, it isn’t the fault of security showboating. If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s the education system. If people were better-informed, and knew what nitrogen was, then a “gaseous nitrogen” label wouldn’t make them worry that someone has accidentally shipped something dangerous. But they aren’t, so it is.

Steve January 18, 2007 5:51 AM

I forgot: finally, the FedEx guy said that the chemical-style certainty labels would “look like bomb-making equipment”, presumably on the same “x-ray” as the rocket fuel label “would show up”.

Now, he might be misinformed about how his own company’s security procedures work, but if he honestly believes that the package will cause a false security alert if scanned, then of course he shouldn’t accept it. And if a customer is in front of him saying “well how about this … or this … or this?”, then clearly the customer is (deliberately or accidentally) probing around the edges of whatever the problem is that the FedEx guy (perhaps mistakenly) foresees. The customer has forfeited trust – at that point it would be fairly reasonable to refuse so much as an envelope.

Michael Ash January 18, 2007 6:54 AM

A big point that David Donahue and others are missing is that Fedex delivers packages and, as a common carrier, is not supposed to be looking inside them. “Everyone in the FEDEX delivery chain” does not have to know that the “Rocket Fuel” is a gag, because they will only see the plain brown box that the item was put inside.

The only reason this guy got any grief in the first place is because he packaged his shipment at the FedEx location. If he had packaged them at home and then brought them to FedEx, there never would have been any problem.

Matt from CT January 18, 2007 7:24 AM

“A big point that David Donahue and others are missing is that Fedex delivers packages and, as a common carrier, is not supposed to be looking inside them”

Answer to the wrong question.

The guy came to the counter with a package that, at best, was mis-labelled then gave an explanation that was credible to common sense (when was the last time saw someone carrying around sugar labelled “Rocket Fuel”?)

Now, let’s say your Mr. Security.

You’ve had someone you’ve caught in a lie — either they were lying with what was printed on the package they presented, or they were lying about the contents. You don’t know which is true — you just know they’re mutually exclusive.

Person presents something else. At this point, you don’t trust them.

You tell them, “No, we won’t accept that.”

Person insists on an explanation. You’re pretty sure he’s just an idiot and you don’t quite want to bother the cops.

Do you go and tell a person you already don’t trust what your actual security policies are…or do you just give him a line of baloney that reveals nothing useful about your actual policies and procedures in the hope he leaves — with no usefel knowledge gained from the hacking attempt — before you have to escalate the incident by calling in the police to escort him from the property?

The corrollary:
One company I was at came out with the reasonable edict to not reveal system info in the “Banner Messages” when entering devices by FTP / Telnet / SSH / etc.

We did have some fun…we took out the Cisco or Solaris or whatever the real system was in the message.

and came back with messages people were logging into Commodore 64s, Nintendos, Apple IIcs, etc.

That was fun…you could however legitimately fustrate a moderately skilled attacker by providing false but believable information on those banners instead — so a Cisco switch reports as a Nortel; a Linux box comes up reporting as Solaris.

Someone with decent probing tools might recognize the “signature” of the transaction…however most hackers just trying a plain FTP sees “Solaris” come up, they start to try Solaris exploits….which prove ineffective since the system is actually Linux.

It is a legitimate security technique when you don’t trust someone to misdirect or misinform them so you don’t reveal actual, useful information to the hacker.

Steve January 18, 2007 8:28 AM

“Fedex delivers packages and, as a common carrier, is not supposed to be looking inside them.”

Is that what actually happens? I’m not American, and have no experience of US law or common practice in this matter.

For example, if I were to mail an assault rifle, a couple of hundred loose rounds, a pound of Semtex with a detonator attached, and a kilo of heroin, all in a big box, could I reasonably expect it to arrive unopened?

If there really is no security on packages, and therefore no danger of a false security scare, then my initial impression as to what fazed the FedEx guy is clearly wrong (or is a correct guess on my part but a wholly irrational decision from him). But it seems to me, from what he said, that he believed that the contents of the package would (or at least might) be examined by “X-ray”.

If it’s not actually FedEx employees who implement any of the security, but solely government agents acting separately from FedEx, then I’d have higher expectations of their education. I’d hope that the Feds know what Nitrogen is, and that even if they did see a jar labelled “rocket fuel” they would quickly realise that it contained no such thing. But maybe FedEx guy doesn’t have such a high opinion of them, or doesn’t realise that the “nitrogen” joke is obvious to anyone with even very basic scientific knowledge. In that case his decision is still reasonable, even if it’s mistaken. He may also have been covering his ass – he doesn’t want to be the guy whose name is on the receipt for a package which caused the FBI to clear the building on a false alarm.

My point still is that this probably isn’t either stupidity or security theatre, even if it is due to a level of ignorance which we, as a science-minded bunch, think is shocking. The FedEx guy just over-estimated the likelihood of the labels causing a false alarm.

“If he had packaged them at home and then brought them to FedEx, there never would have been any problem.”

That’s because it isn’t worth FedEx’s while opening every package to find out whether, if opened, it might cause a problem.

If they have seen it packed, though, and hence know the contents at zero cost, it might be perfectly sensible to reject some things which aren’t worth actively looking for.

DBH January 18, 2007 8:48 AM

While there is an assumption here, these regulations actually have nothing to do with security and terrorism. In fact, shipping of hazardous substances has to do with public safety and the safety of the shipper’s employees, including the guy behind the counter who might drop the box accidentally. I don’t think T$A has anything to do with this particular issue, although I’m sure they would object on general principal.

However, once the guy understood what was really being delivered, jokes, then he should have relaxed. In fact, he does not have a regulation that says “do not ship anything with the following words on it: Rocket fuel, …” (e.g. books, dvds?) He DOES have rules regarding the safe shipment and management of such ACTUAL materials.

So I give the guy a little bit of leeway to really get a bit nervous at first, but after he knew it was joke material, he could ease off. Otherwise, he should be sh*tting his pants about the rocket fuel in his trash can…

Davi Ottenheimer January 18, 2007 9:15 AM

@ Matt from CT

You could have saved us a lot of time and just written:

“It was a really stupid customer. […] You’ve had someone you’ve caught in a lie […] You’re pretty sure he’s just an idiot and you don’t quite want to bother the cops.”

Point taken. You have made it abundantly clear that your perspective is obeisance defines who is smart and who is stupid. Submit yourself to the rules — smart. Question the rules — stupid.

But the icing on the cake is how you then turn around and say what “fun” can be had by providing misinformation on login banners.

So, to follow your tortured logic, perhaps hazmat rules should be completely hidden or cleverly altered to make them even more draconian as “idiot” filters. Forget about actually improving security, I bet you’d really have a lot of people to point your finger and laugh at (or whisk off for punishment) then, eh?

Davi Ottenheimer January 18, 2007 9:28 AM

@ Steve

“If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s the education system. If people were better-informed…. But they aren’t, so it is.”

Excellent point. At the end of the day, I guess, we come back to the economics of whether it pays more for FedEx to have better-informed staff, or more for the customer to be better-informed on how to work with/around obstacles in their path. If we’re trying to find ways to make shipping safer, I would vote for the former.

Michael Ash January 18, 2007 9:45 AM


The X-Ray question is an interesting one. On the one hand, I would expect that anything which would be shipped by plane would be X-Rayed. On the other hand, this could destroy sensitive film and other such things, and so there should be notices like you find at airports that these things will be destroyed and you should find an alternate method for transporting them.

I have never seen any such notices at a shipping location, nor have I been informed of such things when I’ve sent packages by air. Either the shipping companies don’t care if their customers’ sensitive film is destroyed, I’m wrong about certain sensitive materials being destroyed by the scans, or they don’t X-Ray packages that go on planes.

Given the evidence, I would guess that the last one is true, but I could very well be wrong.

Even if they do scan packages, as far as I know you would not be able to read labels. I’ve seen what airport security monitors pick up (just peek around at the side with the TV next time you go through security) and the images are indistinct. They show outlines and changes in density but would never be able to read painted lettering.

Michael Ash January 18, 2007 9:50 AM


The X-Ray question is an interesting one. On the one hand, I would expect that anything which would be shipped by plane would be X-Rayed. On the other hand, this could destroy sensitive film and other such things, and so there should be notices like you find at airports that these things will be destroyed and you should find an alternate method for transporting them.

I have never seen any such notices at a shipping location, nor have I been informed of such things when I’ve sent packages by air. Either the shipping companies don’t care if their customers’ sensitive film is destroyed, I’m wrong about certain sensitive materials being destroyed by the scans, or they don’t X-Ray packages that go on planes.

Given the evidence, I would guess that the last one is true, but I could very well be wrong.

Even if they do scan packages, as far as I know you would not be able to read labels. I’ve seen what airport security monitors pick up (just peek around at the side with the TV next time you go through security) and the images are indistinct. They show outlines and changes in density but would never be able to read painted lettering.

Matt from CT January 18, 2007 10:40 AM


Once again, you’re putting words in my mouth.

In a nutshell answer to your last post:


I’ve answered fully why I believe the person trying to ship the mis-labelled product was in the wrong.

As to Davi’s analogy of anonymously shipping known haz-mats to chaning logon banners:

Changing the banners doesn’t endanger anyone.

Shipping haz-mats without placards and/or without proper manifests does.

You give a hacker a false banner, or you give someone you don’t intend to accept a shipment from a bogus message (“Yah, we can’t accept those packages during the new moon…”) it really doesn’t have a significant downside — the clerk wasn’t going to let the guy ship anyways after catching him in a lie.

Try to anonymously ship hazardous materials…you seriously risk mixing incompatible cargo or having improper tactics performed to control fires or other emergencies. Things blow up and people get killed — that was fairly common through the 1980s.

Madman January 18, 2007 10:40 AM

Most people are missing the point. A terrorist wouldn’t label the material as such, and certainly wouldn’t ask for FedEx’s help in packing it in a box to keep it safe from breaking.

Stupidity apparently is an excuse for some posters here, in that the clerks are obviously too stupid to see that it’s joke, EVEN WHEN IT’S EXPLAINED to them.

Again, people, terrorists have not even done these types of crimes, and if they did, they would not label them and have FedEx take a look.

Instead, a terrorists would try to disguise the materials so that it wouldn’t be discovered. Got it?!

Maltheos January 18, 2007 11:23 AM

I am of the opinion that any package that is labeled with any “hazardous quantity” ( i.e. explosive, flamable, rocket fuel, Oxygen, Hydrogen, …..) anything that were it properly containing that should be rejected and “proper labeling” applied. There are very good reasons why those items are considered hazardous and regulations exist for shiping them properly. The FedEx guy may be an ass, but if I am making a claim of …. then he is within his rights to take me at face value.

OTOH if the quantity being shiped is not a legitimate hazardous substance (i.e. certanty, water, coffee), and is labeled as such there should be no issues in shiping this.

Bottom line, the FedEx guy over steped himself with regard to some of the items, and was legit in regard to other items.

Put the label in the container, and inventory the contents as “product labeling” or as “packaging materials”, and you should still be able to ship it.

Michael Ash January 18, 2007 11:29 AM


As usual, The Simpsons provides commentary:

“No one would like to celebrate your love more than I. But I’m a public official and am not allowed to use my own judgement in any way.”

Unfortunately it has become unacceptable for both politicians and corporate executives to rely on the judgement of the people who actually have to deal with day-to-day operations. The result is a positive feedback cycle in which the regulations are revealed to be inadequate and the holes cannot be covered by the underlings because they’re not allowed, then the regulations are revised and become even larger and more hole-ridden, and go back to the start.

Prohias January 18, 2007 1:42 PM

I just read the released transacript of the pilot conversation in the doomed Com Air flight in Kentucky in August last year.

Its pretty interesting to note that the pilot notices no runway lights but doesn’t immediately panic. All of us know the excruciating detail in the pre-flight check list that leads to so many delays. But the manual/training is obviously short if it discounts the lack of runway lights as an ultimate danger sign.

Same sign for most security we see today – people go by the book and never question if the book is wise and who is responsible for updating it. Question everyhting.

shoobe01 January 18, 2007 1:55 PM

I do not understand any of y’all who think this was a reasonable thing for FexEd to do. You know, the labelling requirements to make sure that legitimately dangerous packages have the appropriate warning require labels. They are bought from label printers and generally will be mailed. Are you not allowed to mail 11,000 stickers that say “explosives” as that’s clearly very dangerous. 11,000 times as powerful as one heavy box with a single sticker on the side, clearly.

FedEx, especially, is HORRIBLE at understanding not just common sense, but their own rules. For example, your gun breaks and you want to return it to the manufacturer under warranty. You can do this all by yourself, but have to go straight to Fedex themselves, and not a Kinko’s store or anything. Try this. Its fun if you like annoying people. You will probably have to stand there for some time and go up a level or two of supervisor before they will bother to read the manual, which says they can do it.

Same should have happened here. I’ll bet that the manual says dangerous /products/ but nothing about labels. It might even have a note about labels that are not themselves dangerous. Its a big book.

Wombat January 18, 2007 2:26 PM

I tried to ship a pen-knife from the UK to the states just after the WTC attacks but Fedex refused because apparently this was too dangerous

Vurk January 18, 2007 3:40 PM

You obviously dont live in America, because your post makes too much sense to have come from an American.

In America today, everybody is a terrorist; and therefore, if someone is trying to do business and that business requires something out of the ordinary that person MUST be refused because they are obviously a terrorist and the person at the reception desk doesnt want to be the person responsible for not stopping the “next terrorist attack”.

It is the lack of common sense that makes this security theater.
That and the lack of training on FedEx’s part. If their counter personnel were trained to simply say “I’m sorry, we cant ship that” (instead of saying “that label will set off alarms in our magic x-ray machine”) nothing would have come of it.

Adrian January 19, 2007 4:03 AM

I agree with the people above who are supporting the FedEx employee. There are federal laws against shipping most chemicals by air. These are not new laws since 9/11. I remember some of the regulations were tightened after a plane crash about 10 years ago. That wasn’t terrorism, “just” a combination of sloppy procedures, bad luck, inadequate caution with hazardous materials. A lot of people died anyhow.

If you want to ship a chemical, it needs a clear and accurate label (not just the name. If the stuff is highly flammable, or certain kinds of reactive, the label needs to say so in standard ways.) You have to enclose a Material Safety Data Sheet that contains specific information in specific order. That’s for any material, hazardous or not. The label and MSDS are how people know nonhazardous materials are nonhazardous. Rocket fuel, sugar, or anything remotely flammable, cannot be shipped by air. Neither can gas cylinders. They’re just too dangerous. These are not insane restrictions. I don’t think FedEx is unreasonable to enforce them. (There’s a special exemption for shipping food by air in refrigerated cases. There is NOT a special exemption for shipping your rifle. You’re supposed to send it by ground transport.)

Shipping chemicals is usually done by ground transport. It takes a little longer, but it’s generally considered worth it to reduce the risk of accidental fire and explosion. FedEx does not do ground transport; their whole business is sending packages air express. If you want to send something on the ground, try UPS, or the post office, which gives you a choice of air or surface shipping. And package it properly, so there are no false labels on the outside.

Michael Ash January 19, 2007 5:58 AM


You seem to have missed the point on a couple of levels.

Your comments about shipping chemicals is all correct, but it’s irrelevant, because this guy wasn’t shipping any.

FedEx does have ground service:

His package had no false labels on the outside, only on the inside, but the FedEx guy saw his labels on the inside and freaked out.

David (Toronto) January 19, 2007 7:20 AM


I agree with your comment about the feedback cycle on regulations and procedures. We are being dumbed into oblivion.

Adrian’s point supports the “dear in the headlights” observation. I hadn’t even thought about shipping gas cans by air. (Wasn’t it a ValueJet that caught fire and crashed into a swap carrying oxygen cylinders).

Even without the spolier, you, Adrian, myself, and most of the posters on this list realized that his cans of N, O2, Ne, etc. were just air. There were howls of laughter in our office of folks just reading the original blog. The guy’s packaging is really clever. (Does he sell Levity too?)

While I bet there are some of the front line folks at FedEx that will get it, a lot won’t.

Last time I checked basic chemistry was not a required subject. A petition to ban a substance used by major polluters at an environmental event collected lots of signatures. The substance, dihydrogen monoxide. There’s even a web site @ with a material data sheet and lots of “information”.

The other valid concern is that the canisters might be pressurized. They weren’t. Nor did the clerk ask (did he know?). Nor did the customer unscrew the tops to show it.

Someone once told me that the BEST human processes have an error rate of around 1/2%. Clearly this is not a case of the best.

As strange and error filled as this whole incident is, I expect that this kind of thing is a lot more common than we’d like to think.

Ale January 19, 2007 7:42 AM

“If you want to ship a chemical…You have to enclose a Material Safety Data Sheet that contains specific information in specific order. That’s for any material, hazardous or not.”

What is the information that one has to include for such dangerously flammable materials such as paper, cardboard, and different kinds of plastics, such as those used to manufacture CDs, DVDs, iPods and the plethora of other things that are routinely mailed without problems?

“Neither can gas cylinders. They’re just too dangerous.”

A cylindrical canister full of gaseous air at room temperature and around 14psi is usually denoted as empty. Why are empty containers dangerous?

The most cost effective security relies on critical thinking, to extract real threats from a much larger set of suspicious events. Rules and regulations are essential, but should not be assumed to supplant human intelligence and common sense. This extreme focus on the regulations, up to the point of losing sight on the real problem, is not good for security at all.

mdf January 19, 2007 8:30 AM

I’m sure that had the thing gone through without incident, the shipper would have declared the contents of the box to contain “graphic art” or perhaps even “false labels”. FedEx and everyone else has all kinds of forms about this.

That is to say, there would have been no real “false labels” beyond the real “false labels” within the box. People who who are supporting the clueless FedEx employee on these grounds probably didn’t get the joke either … util it was too late, and then couldn’t make themselves look even more foolish by admitting the error. Bureaucracies are famous for circling the wagons, protecting their own, no matter how stupid or inept their own may be.

Eric January 20, 2007 3:20 PM


By regulation an empty container of a product is considered full. A 5 gallon can of gas is considered 5 gallon of gas even if empty.

Common sense doesn’t apply to haz-mat regulation. An example is that if i have more than 2 cylinders of propane gas in my service truck i cannot use a tunnel but i can have a few cases (under 500kg) of propane lighters since the latter are consummer’s product.

vsokko January 21, 2007 7:56 AM

Vendor is use correctly. Here is the definition.
VENDOR- (noun) Someone who promotes or exchanges goods or services for money

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