A surprising variety of consumer goods contain hazardous materials (hazmat), but retailers' employees who handle returned merchandise often are unaware of the potential hazards inherent in some of the items they receive, store, and ship back to warehouses. As a result, they may unknowingly violate laws and regulations while putting their companies at risk for penalties, lawsuits, employee injury, and property damage.
Most people recognize that products like household cleaners and solvents are likely to contain potentially dangerous chemicals but may assume those products don't require special handling because they're in consumer-ready packaging. Retail associates, moreover, may not think of items like light bulbs, health and beauty care products, aerosols, some medicines, and batteries as hazardous. Other potentially dangerous items include most consumer electronics, which may contain lead and mercury as well as lesser-known toxins, and used power equipment that's returned with fuel, oil, or volatile vapors inside.
Even regulated products that were properly packaged, documented, and handled when shipped to a retailer's distribution center often aren't recognized and treated as hazmat when consumers return them, according to Jack Currie, administrator of the Council on Safe Transportation of Hazardous Articles (COSTHA), an industry association that is working with retailers and U.S. government agencies to improve safety in reverse logistics operations involving consumer goods. That's partly due to a lack of awareness among store associates—typically a high-turnover, part-time, or seasonal position that may be overlooked when companies conduct hazmat transportation training. As a result, customer service or stockroom associates often toss hazardous (and frequently incompatible) items in any handy cardboard box or returnable tote and send them back—undeclared, unprotected, and often mislabeled—to a warehouse or distribution center, thus putting those employees and facilities at risk of injury and property loss.
Thanks to retailers' increasingly liberal returns policies and the shrinking life spans of consumer electronic devices, the amount of hazardous consumer goods in the reverse logistics stream is certain to increase. One way retailers can address this growing problem, experts say, is to ensure that anybody who could be called on to handle returned consumer goods—whether at a customer service desk, in a stockroom, in transportation, or at the warehouse—receives job-appropriate hazmat safety training, such as that mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.