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Safety Person the Company Cop

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It's been called the least popular position in the trucking industry, yet it is one of the most vital. The safety person is, in effect, the company cop. He or she must see to it that every truck and every driver in the firm remains within the boundaries of safe operation and of the law of each state where the rig operates. It's much easier to describe than to accomplish.

Logbooks

Paperwork is one of the safety person's major responsibilities. The law requires drivers to file and maintain current log books whenever they are on duty. These log books must comply with federally mandated standards, up to and including the fact that they must be filled out in ink. The safety department checks the logs of each driver to make sure they are, first of all, filled out correctly. Here, little things count. The driver must use his or her full name on the log sheet, must maintain a daily accumulated hours chart, must show loading and unloading periods. If the driver was stopped at a weigh station for a DOT inspection, that, too, must be noted in the log book.



To give an idea of just how much importance is placed on these records, records must be retained for six months, and the Department of Transportation has audit rights to ensure the compliance of the company. Carriers can be fined thousands of dollars for hours-of-service violations.

More than money can be at stake, and once again, the topic of the use of computers arises. In 1996, seven employees of a major Iowa trucking company found themselves on the way to federal prison for falsification of logs. In part, this was due to on-board computer records from the rigs, which in no way agreed with the recorded hard copy of logs the company maintained in its files. While this was an isolated instance, and the circumstances of falsification were quite blatant, the incident should serve as a warning. Moreover, most experts agree that on-board computers are the wave of the future-eventually to become a requirement rather than an option.

It is the safety officer's job to ensure that logs are accurate and up-to-date. The penalties for failure, as you can see, can be quite extreme.

Perhaps this emphasis on detail sounds like nit-picking. In a sense, it is. Yet, like the weather, it does no good whatsoever to argue about these rules; it is unlikely that they will change dramatically. In 1951 many truck lines were taking out full-page ads in newspapers and magazines decrying the rules and regulations placed upon them. It may have gained them a little public sympathy for a while, but little else.

Those rules are still on the book, along with dozens of others. And it is the safety person's job to see to it that these rules are followed.

The Driver's Advocate

Most safety people were drivers at one time or another. This makes the job somewhat simpler since one part of most safety positions is testing potential drivers, both by written exam and by a driving exam. Perhaps it sounds as though the safety department is the driver's enemy. This is untrue. In fact, it can be the driver's best friend.

For example, one of the most common errors that can be committed in the industry is to exceed the hours of service. Often, this happens when dispatch sends a truck from Point A to Point B on an unreasonable schedule. If you have a load that needs to travel fifteen hundred miles, and you only have 24 hours to make delivery, you cannot possibly make that run in a legal manner. It is the dispatcher's job to see that loads are dispatched and moved on a workable schedule, but sometimes they exceed the parameters of safety and good sense in performing their duties. This places the driver in an extremely awkward position. On the one hand, he or she has a load that dispatch says must absolutely, positively be in the shipper's hands no later than noon the next day. On the other hand, the driver faces the very real risk of running afoul of the law by spending too many hours on duty to get the load delivered at the time the dispatch department is demanding. As a driver, if you violate the laws governing hours of service, the fine is yours. Big deal? In states like California, the fine may amount to as much as $500 or $600! Few, if any, companies will pay a fine for this type of violation. Moreover, you will, in all likelihood, be held for eight hours at the weigh station where you were caught in violation, until the required hours of off-duty service are met.

A smart driver caught in this position will call his or her safety department and explain the situation. Safety, in turn, will contact dispatch and tell them in no uncertain terms what the law says. In fact, the safety department will force dispatch to reschedule the load to fall within legal time slots. No legitimate company forces its drivers to violate the law, though at one time this was a very common practice.

Accident Prevention

Perhaps it sounds as though too much emphasis is placed upon such things as log books and hours of service. More than one planner, dispatcher, marketing rep, or driver has argued with a tough, efficient safety department over "silly" rules like hours of service. Yet, more than one safety person has had to read an accident report that contained these words: "...fell asleep at the wheel." The safety department is charged with protecting the driver, the load, the equipment, and the motoring public. And accidents do happen.

In 1975, a truck driver pulled off the side of a major four- lane highway when he began to get sleepy. He left his marker lights on and was completely off the traveled portion of the highway and clearly visible. A husband and wife, returning from a party, both with blood-alcohol levels far above the legal limits, slammed into the back of the trailer and were killed instantly. The family of the couple sued.

In court, the trucking company proved that the couple was undoubtedly legally drunk based on evidence from the coroner's report and from eyewitness accounts of the couple's erratic driving prior to the accident. The couple was traveling well in excess of the legal speed limit, and they rammed the truck without any apparent attempt to slow or brake their car, even though the trailer was lighted and clearly visible.

Who was at fault?

The answer is shocking. The truck driver and his company were sued for over a million dollars! How and why? It is illegal to park a truck on the shoulder of a roadway except in an emergency, and then markers or flares must be set out in accordance with DOT safety standards. It is the safety department's duty to see to it that their drivers are fully aware of the rules, laws, and regulations pertaining to safe operation of a commercial vehicle so that accidents like this one can be avoided.

Meeting State and Federal Standards

In 1990, safety departments were faced with a changing set of rules and regulations that reshaped the industry. The most noticeable were the new laws governing drivers' licensing and mandatory drug tests. Like their law enforcement counterparts, safety people monitor driving records and driver safety violations. In most companies, "points" accrue for serious safety violations. If a driver accumulates too many points, he or she is either suspended or terminated. In today's industry, one drug violation is grounds for termination. Drug tests are now mandatory. Moreover, most major companies also test drivers randomly, without announcing the test ahead of time. If the company's safety department is found negligent in testing, the entire company may be fined heavily, or even shut down until a complete overhaul of safety procedures is implemented. The amount of revenue lost from a federal DOT shutdown is staggering.

In Minnesota, a routine DOT surprise inspection of a major company's drivers' logs netted 52 violations in the first 100 logs reviewed. The DOT gave a written warning to the company to get their "act" in order. Two months later, DOT again inspected the logs, pulling 100 samples at random. Once again, more than half were found to be in violation. The company was shut down for three full working days, which meant that trucks, drivers, and loads were marooned all over the country while the safety staff desperately worked to get their department up to snuff. The results were a hefty fine from the federal DOT, an increase in spot checks of the company's trucks and drivers by officials at weigh stations across the country, and monthly inspections by DOT officials. These penalties amounted to revenue losses of more than half a million dollars during the three- day shutdown, plus the loss of customer confidence from the shutdown.

The safety department is charged with seeing that the driver and his or her equipment remain in constant compliance with both state and federal mandates. Regulations require that all drivers submit a detailed resume of all commercial driving experience up to 10 years back and that their operator's permit be run through the department of motor vehicles computer background check. Additional requirements for drivers include an annual statement of moving violations and annual DOT physicals-usually at company expense after the initial physical. All drivers must be able to present up-to-date physical cards. The safety department also works with accident investigations and studies, keeps track of driver violations, and works with the maintenance department to see that every truck in the fleet is well within the guidelines set forth both by federal law and manufacturer specifications.

Additional Duties

In most companies, the safety department is also in charge of driver training. Many companies require their drivers to attend refresher courses in safety procedures even though a driver may be very experienced. These courses review everything from the pre-trip vehicle inspection to the steps drivers should take if they are involved in an accident.

Most safety personnel work closely with other divisions within the company, especially claims, personnel, and maintenance. Often, safety departments work with organizations outside the trucking operation as well. This includes insurance companies and law enforcement agencies. It is a job that is sometimes thankless because, from time to time, rules and regulations conflict with the conduct of day-to-day business. Yet, a strong safety department is absolutely vital to the success of the company.

At times, the safety department is expected to make suggestions on how safety can be improved based on its studies of the business operation. In the case of one mid-western hauler, the safety study revealed that almost all traffic accidents happened to their drivers between the hours of midnight and 5 A.M. In response, the company created a policy that all vehicles must shut down no later than midnight. Violations of the policy would result in driver termination. The end result was a marked reduction in accidents.

However, the safety department is not all-powerful. The same company that implemented the rules concerning shut down between midnight and 5 A.M. is again running round the clock. Why? There was so much pressure from the marketing department and from their shippers that the safety procedure was overridden and the company returned to their original methods of travel and dispatch...and accidents again went up. Safety can be a very frustrating business when it collides with the financial bottom line.

The safety department also offers driver incentives-safety bonuses. Monetary rewards and safety awards are based on records, maintained by the safety department. Many companies believe that drivers should not only be penalized for unsafe operation, but rewarded when they display a consistent track record of safe driving. In the past, competitions between companies have actually sprung up to see who could compile the highest number of non-violation miles.

Some companies actually place safety spotters on the highway. Although it may sound a bit "big brotherish," these spotters follow the routes their company drivers travel and will, from time to time, stop the drivers and do a routine safety check on everything from paperwork to equipment. These safety checks are unpopular with the drivers, but many operations claim that incidents of log violations, traffic citations, and accidents have been reduced by the presence of company spotters.

Earnings

Wages for a safety person vary widely, depending on their responsibilities and the size of the company. A seasoned safety person with a major company can expect wages well in excess of $30,000. In major fleets, safety directors often earn over $50,000, though this never happens overnight. In small companies, safety is often an additional task for the office secretary or bookkeeper and wages are considerably lower.

Careers in safety outside the trucking industry include law enforcement, working for the federal or state DOT, and similar positions. Any business that is subject to safety regulations can be a career choice for a safety person.
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