WHAT does it take for a tank truck to build a winning safety program, and how can a fleet use technology to optimize its safety culture and processes?

National Tank Truck Carriers assembled a panel of fleet experts to answer these questions and more during the Safety & Security Council Annual Meeting held June 9-11 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The panel discussion, “Elements of an Award-Winning Safety Program,” was moderated by Ray Riley, NTTC safety council national chairman and safety director for Miller Transporters Inc. Panelists included Randy Vaughn, vice-president of administration and risk management at Superior Bulk Logistics Inc; Len Fletcher, president and chief executive officer at Superior Bulk Logistics; Dean Kaplan, chief executive officer of K-Limited Carrier Ltd; Harold Sumerford Jr, chief executive officer of J&M Tank Lines Inc; and Tom Voelkel, president and chief operating officer of Dupré Logistics LLC.

Q: We’ve all talked safety technology. It’s a struggle for many to figure out which technology is going to fit a particular organization. Talk about technology you’re using that you’ve seen some success with.

Vaughn: With every single employee in the corporation, we make sure they have empowerment to stop any unsafe act. In the handbooks, they literally have to sign off that: Any unsafe act I can stop. In our corporation, we have 100% electronic logs. We use the Omnitracs system with the MCP200 terminal. We partnered with a company out of Boston, Brainshark, that enabled us to write our training programs. So now, with every training session, every single driver gets the same message. We couldn’t say that before. With Brainshark, they have courses and they take the test. We can see how long they’ve been on it. The DOT records a 70% success rate in passing it. I’ve always been under the belief that 30% are not getting out there. To me, it has to be 100%. We set up programs where if you’re going back through and you miss a module and it’s wrong, it repeats. He has to sit through it again. At the end of the day when he goes through that, we’ve got 100% on it.

There’s lot of technology you can add on a tractor. But when we look at technology, we all know drivers are our most important resource. So what tool can you give a driver? If you don’t drill it down, you’re going to see the same driver make the same mistake again. The terminal manager says, “I have to terminate this guy.” Did he just get dumb in 90 days? No. So if you use the right training tools, you don’t see that. Training in our industry is a vital thing, especially in the tank truck industry. We have so many different aspects we have to touch.

Fletcher: Technology has been great for our industry. It really has. Once we felt we got culture into the management system and started to get down into the lower ranks, we had a safety bonus program in place. But it was not working for us. We were spending a lot of money and not getting bang for our buck. Anytime something happened and we needed to take a portion of that safety bonus away, it was always contentious: “You took my bonus.” So we did away with it. We took money we had in the program and put it into driver pay and said, “Safety is a condition for employment. Either you operate safely or you don’t operate in this company.” It was a tough stance, but has worked very well for us.

Kaplan: For most of the people in our company, when you talk about technology, they chuckle. But I’m wise enough to know how important it is. I heard people talk about electronic logs, and I’m 100% behind them. We also found that old timers, once they got it, really appreciated it. What we really found interesting was that logistics coordinators became much more accountable. We find that’s a tremendous benefit to our company. On the issue of cameras, we’ve had a couple of guys that have been proactive and went out and got it on their own. We are in the due diligence process. We believe in cameras and think it’s critically important to get them.

Voelkel: Sometimes you talk about leading-edge technology. Sometimes we call it “bleeding-edge” technology. We adopted electronic logs back in 2007, but not without pain, sacrifice, and damage to margins. When we look at technology, there are two things we have to do as leaders in our business and safety programs: One, we have to assess what’s available in the marketplace. There are all kinds of things out there, and you have to spend some time in assessment. Two, and it’s most important: What can you afford? What is the payback? Is it a good solution? What can you execute in your safety departments to get it done? We’ve had a lot of success with that. Recently, we had a situation where we weren’t successful with technology to control cellphone usage. Looking back on it, we learned some things.

We have some definite expectations in how technology is going to help us get to where we want to be. We make sure everybody’s on board and understands what we’re trying to do. You can’t pound your fist on the desk to get things done. You have to work with people. You have to run a business and you have to be safe. You have to be able to do both. If you have 100 trucks sitting out there and they’re not rolling, they are the safest trucks in the fleet. But that’s not the real world.

Sumerford: We made the decision seven years ago to go with a full in-cab safety system with collision avoidance, anti-rollover, lane departure collision. I just really felt it was not the best thing to do—putting a camera on the truck. These cameras … I told a friend it’s not for the weak of heart. Our safety guy brought them to me and said, “Watch this.” I sat down and looked at it, and it makes you carsick just looking at it on the laptop.

We have a driver who has been with us three years and went through progressive training. He had a perfect driving record and no problems with us. But he was just a problem getting ready to happen. We had verbal warnings, suspended him for a week, and let him go after three years with a clean driving record. That’s pretty tough to do. It was kind of a tough call. One of the biggest things with technology—and I think we have as much as anybody in-cab—is continuing to train drivers how to use it and make it work for them, especially when only half of the fleet has the system. Somebody has to teach that driver how to operate that truck. There are guys who come in trucks with automatic transmissions and anti-collision stuff, and trucks start doing things and they don’t understand why.

Q: What is the one thing about your safety program, your safety culture, that if you lost it today would signal the failure of your safety program?

Kaplan: Nineteen years ago, our company was launched with just $10,000. We moved up well and invested in the company and people. When you talk about safety culture, I don’t want this to sound like an advertisement, but we’re wearing a lot of hats. When you start to be around people … I watched how these people built their companies. I don’t use everything they do. But if you go to our website, you will find out where I got my ideas.

One thing (that would signal failure) would be if we would divorce the operations group and safety group. In our company, they are married and go hand-in-hand down the aisle. Our senior management runs the company, and safety and operations are involved in every decision we make. That’s just the way it’s going to be. If you took that culture away, our people would be devastated.

Fletcher: If you get away from “safety first,” if you were to get back to being a market-driven company or a sales-driven company—anything that takes safety out of the #1 spot—that would be devastating. You need the buy-in throughout the organization. You must have everybody on board and have to work hard at doing that. It doesn’t come easy. If you’re losing focus, then you lose your program.

Vaughn: There’s a country and western song out. A little guy is talking about his dad. The little boy starts cussing. Dad says, “Where did you hear that?” He says, “Dad, I want to be like you. Well, Dad, I heard you.” Same thing in our industry. Senior management, we’re watched. How are we going to react? If you walk into a terminal and see something unsafe and you don’t say anything about it, it sends a message that it must not be important. With my staff, if you see something, you stop them at that point. You have to be able to set the culture. We’re all adults, but all of us have an inner kid. You can talk safety, but if you don’t act it and walk it, well, they say, “It’s not important to him, so I really don’t have to do it this way.” Somebody has to lead and somebody has to follow. We have to be the leaders on this.

Voelkel: The big challenge for us as leaders today is we have to be able to change and be flexible. But with change and flexibility, the flip side is you still have to be able to stand for something. That’s the biggest challenge I find—seeing where we need to change but realizing there are certain things that don’t change. We have a slogan in our company: “All accidents are preventable.” We have a relentless pursuit to dig into accidents and find out what we could have to done to not have that accident happen. The most important thing is commitment from leadership to continue to be safe.

Sumerford: We all spend a lot of time in our company trying to explain to employees as well as drivers that we want to do things right. One of the biggest fears I have is something happening that would compromise our integrity to do the right thing. It was very hard when we went on electronic logs. For a company our size, we spent an additional $70,000 the first year on motel bills. We had drivers in motels 40 miles from home. We sent pickups down the road to get drivers and bring them back. It was very tempting to tell drivers to just bring it in. Compromising our integrity is something I worry about every day.”   ♦

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