Drivers call it some of the most realistic and demanding training in the tank truck industry. It is a regimented two-week program that quickly separates real tank truck drivers from the wannabees.
The program almost could be called a boot camp for drivers and was developed by Schneider National Bulk Carriers (SNBC) for new hires and drivers already working for the carrier that need intensive retraining. Management believes the program is giving the company a better group of drivers.
“This program certainly washes out more candidates in our driver hiring program, but it eliminates them for the right reasons,” says Stephen F Torres, SNBC safety director. “We think we are better able to avoid the marginal drivers that don't quite have the skills and aptitude for today's driving environment. We also have an easier time identifying drivers that lack the confidence to work safely around tank trucks and hazardous materials. These are critical factors even though we're only hiring experienced truck drivers right now.
“Our training program is getting high marks from the drivers that have gone through it. They praise it as one of the best in the industry. While the training is tough, they say it is also more detailed. It's not just talk from an instructor. We have a lot of hands on practice with simulators where drivers can make mistakes without risk of injury or causing damage to equipment and the environment.”
SNBC's program reached a new and even tougher level when the tank truck carrier opened a new training center in July in Reserve, Louisiana. At 11,000 square feet, it is the largest of four training centers in the SNBC system. The others are in Houston, Texas; Gary, Indiana; and Coraopolis, Pennsylvania.
The Reserve facility also is the most elaborate and challenging of the four training centers. It occupies what had been a partially used maintenance building at Schneider's Reserve complex. Carl Hebert had the vision for the Reserve facility, which was assembled over approximately 18 months. He was assisted by other training team members Elroy Hoover and Roland McGee.
They built most of the training simulators that are used in the program. “Simulators are an important part of our training program,” Torres says. “Due to increased security and other issues, we're not able to do as much hands-on training at customer facilities as in the past. The next best option was to develop our own training simulators. Most of our simulator equipment was relatively easy to build and other fleets could do the same thing.”
The SNBC training team assembled what is essentially a trailer loading/unloading site complete with storage tanks, piping, and valves. Tractors and tank trailers from the SNBC fleet are part of the loading/unloading simulator scenario.
“We worked with a customer to ensure that we had accurate signage and piping for the storage tanks,” Torres says. “Instructors can modify the piping and storage tank connections to create a wide range of scenarios and challenges for the students.”
The only truly high-tech training system at the Reserve facility is a driving simulator. It is in a training trailer that also provides a classroom that can seat up to 20 students. This is the only air-conditioned area in the Reserve training facility.
While the building provides protection from the rain, students definitely feel southern Louisiana's hot, humid summers. Large fans remove truck exhaust fumes when engines are running during product pumping exercises, but they don't do much to moderate the temperature.
“This is another reason we can provide very realistic training,” Torres says. “Students must wear appropriate protective equipment during the training exercises, and they have to learn to be aware of heat issues and other health concerns. They have to know how to stay hydrated and when to take breaks.”
Drivers go through the simulator portion of the two-week training program in class groups of three. “Small class size means we can give very individualized instruction to each student,” Torres says. “Our instructors also follow a uniform curriculum throughout the SNBC system. All of that helps ensure a high degree of work readiness at the end of the initial training.”
A new class starts each week. Students can be newly hired drivers or those being sent through for retraining. Drivers come to the Reserve training facility from throughout the SNBC system.
Each class typically starts with a 14-station evaluation of driver dexterity. Developed and administered by a third-party therapist group, the screening helps show whether a driver has the physical ability to perform safely on the job.
Instructors also issue personal protective equipment (PPE) to new hires at the outset of the training. A large inventory of equipment is on hand and instructors have plenty of experience ensuring the correct sizing and fit for each driver.
The PPE program at the training center goes well beyond helping driver select the right sizes. Instructors also run tests to ensure that the equipment performs as required. “We do tests on PPE whenever we can, and we post the results for our students to examine,” Torres says. “We're always looking for better equipment.”
Next comes classroom instruction on a wide range of topics, including hazardous materials handling, hazard characteristics, company policies, and federal and state transportation regulations. Hours of service get plenty of attention.
Classroom time also is spent with the video-equipped driving simulator, one of the newest generation units on the market. SNBC has four simulators — one at each training center.
“The driving simulator is good for decision-making in a controlled environment,” says Kendall Rothman, classroom instructor at the Reserve training facility. “The driver can make mistakes without endangering anyone's safety, and he can tell us what he is seeing during each exercise.”
Loading and unloading
At least two days are devoted to the loading/unloading simulators arranged in such a way that they resemble an obstacle course. Many drivers probably feel like they have been put through an obstacle course by the time they finish working on the simulators.
“We really put drivers through the paces during this part of the training,” Torres says. “Our trainers can create all sorts of problems with the piping and storage tanks,” Torres says. “We let drivers make mistakes. They can overfill tanks and blow lines.
“There is a lot of role playing, and we put students through hazardous and non-hazardous scenarios. A driver may have to troubleshoot the entire system. Drivers have to trace the lines to determine which one goes to the correct tank, and they have to learn to ask the customer for help. Through all of it, they are wearing their PPE.”
At the end of the two-week course, drivers face what is essentially a comprehensive final exam. It starts with a 30-mile road test with an instructor in a tractor-trailer rig. The last half of the exam is a full-scale drill through the unloading simulators, which must be completed in less than four hours.
Only then will SNBC assign a new-hire to a tractor and send him out on the road. ♦