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Ten Safety Lessons For The Trucking Industry

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1. Be Solid, Look Solid

Let’s say that a group of investors and entrepreneurs opened a bank on a busy street corner but rather than a stately, columned building, they opened for business in a tent. How would that be perceived by their potential depositors?

“Not very well,” you say. Why not? Because the tent doesn’t give the image of a place that is permanent, a place where the depositor’s money will be safe. Tents can get blown away in a storm. They’re not, and maybe more importantly are not seen as, very permanent or safe. A tent creates a credibility gap.

Unfortunately, that’s the impression that many carriers provide with their safety programs to their employees: something that’s here now but not built on a very solid foundation. They’re nothing more than a series of slogans and government mandated postings. They have no real plan, only reactions to buttons being pressed by unknown parties. Thus they give no appearance of a coherent strategy. They look temporary and are temporary. There’s a name for this common brew: “flavor of the month.” Ironically, they also look old and tired because they are old and tired.

A world class safety program has important elements that look solid and are solid. They rest on a solid foundation of principles and actions. These are the elements that we have found over the years to be essential to every carrier. It’s what we call a Level Four Safety organization. Note the important functions and that the company is maxing out on their effectiveness.

That’s the goal. But to improve, we can’t immediately become great at all their functions. We just have to have the willingness to improve.

But the mindset must be clear. The goal is a solid safety function that will withstand the battering of ill winds, be they government mandates, shifting economic factors, or the challenges of teaching Generation Y drivers.

Constructs that are solid are a good thing when it comes to safety. Creating them is a key role of any organization that wants to win the hearts and minds of their drivers and support staff and thereby create a world class safety organization.

2. Post No Bills

In the old days, a big part of communication was via posters. That’s how Billboard, the company that ranks top music hits in a plethora of categories, started as a business. “Bills” were posted to encourage the masses to vote for a candidate in the latest election, to announce the circus coming to town or to promote the latest entertainer at the local theatre.

The problem was that after the event, nobody was responsible for taking down the bills. Some got papered over with new bills but everything from telephone poles to old buildings to road signs looked pretty shabby. So owners of the posting locations, fed up with the onslaught, started to put up their own communication: Post No Bills.

In 2013, even with the internet, I-Phones, cool websites and many other indispensable parts of our daily lives, there’s still a place for communications like posters. There still is a place for the old workhorse, the company bulletin board.

But, and it’s a big “but,” that can’t be the only way to communicate with employees. And if a company leaves posters up for a long time and they get dog-eared and shabby, no one will see them any longer. They are simply another tree in the forest. Your employees, your operators at whom the messages are aimed, won’t say “Post no Bills” but they won’t react to them at all. How can you react to the invisible?

Today Post No Bills means you have to have an integrated approach to communication, not the helter-skelter treatment.

“New” is one of the best words in the English language and new is what’s needed to give the appearance that the safety program is solid (See Lesson #1 above). Without the buy-in of your employees, what is your communication program about?

A carrier needs comprehensive (read as “lots of ways”) methods to get safety messages across to its employees. Planned, scripted meetings are one way. Managers and supervisors, not just those in the safety department, need to be highly knowledgeable in both safety practices and the best ways to get the information across to operators. Safety Resource Centers are another way. Posters that remind employees of key safety practices and hazards are a fit too, but they can’t carry the ball by themselves. They also must change frequently to be seen. Helpful, interesting meetings play a play, too. Properly-paced audio-visuals are a necessity, supplanting out-of-date PowerPoint.

What’s your safety communication plan?

3. Install a Safety Resource Center

You need a place for all things safety. This home makes it clear that you are serious about the durability of the safety initiative. It’s a process not a program.

An on-line Safety Resource Center is a gift that keeps on giving:

  • Consistency and standardization of policies, procedures and practices across all terminals and locations
  • Rapid, cost-effective deployment of information everywhere
  • The elimination of managerial excuses (I didn’t know…)
  • The sharing of best practices, including almost instantaneous answers to important manager and dispatcher questions (e.g. how should I deal with this?)
  • One-stop access to all pertinent information related to a core function of the business (safety)
  • The most up-to-date information related to the core function (articles, new laws and regulations, interpretations, policy changes, etc.)

So what is a Safety Resource Center? Is it a place next to the Safety Director’s office where all the postings, log books, safety glasses and accident reporting forms are kept? Hardly.

It’s a stimulating website that everyone can visit to get the latest on safety efforts.

Example: Whenever there’s an accident anywhere in the organization, an alert is posted. What happened is explained and the ways to keep it from happening again are spelled out. The message is clear: safety matters.

Example: Whenever the government gets involved and mandates some new rules like “We’ve decided to change CSA again” the message is clear. We’re on top of the situation and we’re doing everything we can to give you current and accurate information.

Example: Whenever drivers have questions, the Safety Resource Center is a vehicle where anyone can get a straightforward answer quickly. No hiding. No procrastination.

The point is that when you have an effective and efficient SRC you have a pyramid in place…a process that gives you safety process solidarity. That’s a very good thing that will pay dividends over and over.

4. Hire the Right Drivers

Safety pioneer H.W. Heinrich introduced his domino theory of accident causation in 1932 in his breakthrough paper, Industrial Accident Prevention.  The first domino was based on worker personality, including traits like recklessness, stubbornness and greed. He demonstrated how specific behaviors, when repeated often enough, lead to accidents.

In the past several years, many well-known business gurus have posited similar theories for achieving organizational success.  Peter Drucker asserts that business success begins with, “getting the right people on the bus and making sure they’re in the right seat.”  Jack Welch introduced us to Top-Grading, a systematic methodology for continuously removing C players from the workforce.  Both experts, and a veritable host of others, agree that the quality of any team or business is predominantly dependent upon the talent acquisition process.  Just taking a driver who meets the minimum and hoping for the best isn’t a strategy, it’s a gamble

If winning begins with selecting and hiring winners, why is it that many are willing to settle for the first applicant who shows up with the minimum qualifications?  Worse, why do recruiters seemingly ignore the most important traits during the hiring process and, instead, focus on qualities and characteristics that are rarely predictive of on-the-job success?

Mack truck driver sitting on his bed

One of the keys is finding people who will not get into accidents. So what is an accident? An accident is an unplanned event that disrupts activity, affects people and has a cause.  Almost without exception, that cause is a driver’s behavior.

To increase safety either:

1)     Correct the unsafe behaviors or
2)     Eliminate operators from the work force who are willing to behave in unsafe ways.

This cries for a better method of hiring. There’s a better way and, at a minimum, it should have at least six parts:

  1. An applicant attraction process with a big mouth (generating lots of applicants).
  2. A realistic job preview to self-eliminate unfit candidates
  3. A comprehensive application process
  4. A pre-employment psychometric assessment to eliminate risk takers
  5. A structured, behaviorally-anchored, job interview to select the best
  6. A thorough background check

These aren’t pie-in-the-sky concepts that only industrial psychologists can appreciate. They are common sense when you look at the risks any carrier faces and the need to insure the safety of all your stakeholders.

5. Understand Risk Compensation

In 1982 John Adams of University College, London, published a paper called The Efficacy of Seatbelt Legislation: A Comparative Study of Road Accident Fatality Statistics from 18 countries. It showed that in the countries studied, which included those with and without seat belt laws, there was no correlation between the passing of seat belt legislation and the total reductions in injuries or fatalities. In fact, in three countries, which enacted seatbelt laws, the accident rate actually increased.

  • Three independent studies show that drivers respond to antilock brakes by driving faster, following closer and braking later.  This  accounts for the failure of ABS to result in any measurable improvement in road safety.
  • A study published in the March 2007 issue of  Accident Analysis & Prevention, showed that automobile drivers consistently passed closer to motorcycle riders when the motorcycle rider wore a helmet versus not wearing a helmet.
  • The better the parachute the skydiver uses, the more likely he/she is to pull the rip cord when closer to the ground and to try more risky maneuvers.  Safer, better equipment actually led to an increase in skydiving deaths.

These studies, and hundreds more just like them, support the premise that people have a natural target level of risk they find acceptable and often the compensation for risk occurs at the sub-conscious level.  This applies to physical risk, financial risk, personal risk… you name it. Only when they exceed that target, are they willing to change their behavior to reduce their risk.

Further, and important for the concept of what author Gerald J.S. Wilde calls “risk homeostasis” is that people will take more risks if they feel they have been provided with safer equipment that compensates for the risk.  Things like disc brakes, seat belts and even condoms (yes, condoms).

That doesn’t mean that you should not be on the look-out for new driving technologies that make your drivers, passengers and vehicles safer. It means that you cannot install a new technology and simply sit back and expect results. The human factor is just too complex.

It must be a combination of “the new and improved” and a willingness to professionally select, assess and train drivers.

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Avatar Fleet believes that there is truth to the theory that drivers adjust to safer vehicle technology by     taking more risks. However, that’s not the whole truth.  In fact, accidents and fatalities have decreased in the past two decades.  If everyone is compensating, how can this occur?  Three things:

First, every new technology is not compensated by more risk and by everyone. It’s doubtful that the clichéd “little old lady” and her ilk drive closer to other drivers’ back ends because they acquired disc brakes. Safety improvements help the conservative driver.

Second, there have been a lot of safety technology improvements. Some are not publicized much or are not apparent. So drivers can’t compensate for what they don’t know.

Third, while vendors will declare high success for their products, most will never reach their lofty     safety predictions. Some smaller incremental improvements are certainly possible, however. Two percent here, one percent there, it adds up to a safer roadway over time, especially if you hire the right drivers.

6. Make Change Management Work For You

Every executive wants to get better results. After all, better is better. Producing “better” is part of the job description. In many ways, the business environment is a Darwinian arena where those who continue to evolve and improve survive. Those who fail to continually adapt are eventually eliminated from the business gene pool.

Ten Safety Lessons

The need for change is a universal business imperative, but often begins with a specific catalyst. For example, maybe results have slipped lately and need revitalized.

Our insurance rates are climbing and we’re having too many accidents. Something’s wrong with safety.

Or, perhaps the need to hire quality drivers is driving the change:

We need good drivers but our process is too slow and we’ve got too much paper.

Or, it could be driven by external factors such as the FMCSA’s CSA initiative.

How are we ever going to deal with all these new regulations?


HOS is going electronic. A lot of drivers are confused.”


Because they never understood it in the first place and now they think the computer is wrong.

Regardless of the impetus for change, challenges pop up like Whack-A-Moles. The allegations fly: “Everybody’s on a different page”or the classic “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Then there’s misalignment (yet another buzzword). Everyone’s fighting each other. There’s no teamwork. Bad things can and will happen. The point is, change is a human construct and must be accomplished through human cooperation.

So how do you connect the “disconnects”? How can you ameliorate the impact on employees and minimize the upheaval so that your efforts will actually bear fruit? Trust me, a memo or a phone call won’t get it done.

Overestimating or underestimating your organization’s ability to absorb change leads to failure. However, that competitive clock never stops ticking. Somewhere out there, someone is tackling the same problem and trying to gain competitive advantage over you. Their company is becoming stronger while others are becoming more fragile.

Organizational change is always conceived as logical, rational, orderly, understandable and scheduled on a precise timeframe. In theory. In reality, it is usually messy, chaotic, turbulent, misunderstood and takes much longer than ever expected. So, how can you implement change, knowing the outcome may be very different than initially conceived?

It takes hard work and it takes planning. All the while the everyday tasks of moving cargo must get done. People need their goods. Investigate how to make real change in your organization. Learn all you can. This is a necessity, not an option. With proper planning and guidance, it won’t be as nasty as you perceive and will provide better results than you imagine.

7. Treat Distracted Driving As a Canary in the Coal Mine


Hot topics in transportation rise and fall. One of the hottest issues for trucking companies today is how they deal with distracted driving. Distracted driving is any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing. According to FMCSA, driver distraction was a factor in 6% of fatal crashes in 2011. Since the cell phone ban went into effect in 2012, more than 4,900 CMV drivers have been cited.

Yes, you have a policy on that but a policy is not sufficient. This is a classic “canary in the mine” type of action. If you can make this work and keep drivers from performing distracted actions while they drive, that’s a very good indication that your safety program is working. If you cannot stop drivers from distracted driving, you’ve got more work to do.

There are basically three types of distractions:

  1. Visual – Drivers taking their eyes off the road
  2. Manual – Drivers taking their hands off the wheel
  3. Cognitive – Drivers taking their minds off what they are doing.

Examples of distracted driving include texting, eating, talking on a cell phone, reading and even grooming. Truckers who drive distracted have been known to:

  • Cause accidents
  • Run red lights
  • Weave
  • Go off the road
  • Hit fixtures and other fixed objects
  • Draw the attention of law enforcement

Can you carry out a campaign to stop these negative activities? What are the consequences of bad behavior? What are the rewards for good behavior? Does good performance matter in the minds of your drivers? These are key questions that you should ponder while you determine your effectiveness to get it done.

8. Grasp Six Truths About Safety

Truth One
Safety is freedom from risk.
Accept this truth: you will never be safe. The best you will ever do is reduce risk. "Safety" is relative, not absolute.

Truth Two
Create no safety silos
Carriers who organize safety into one department and allow all others to do their own thing are doomed to failure. Safety must be a cooperative effort, not a silo. The commitment and strength for the process must come from the top and belongs principally to operations.

Truth Three
For every 300 unsafe behaviors, there will be 29 minor accidents and ultimately one major accident. To prevent tragedies, you must focus on the unsafe behaviors. Accidents are caused; they are not accidental. Accidents and injuries are the result of human errors (i.e. mistakes). The process for improving safety results is identical to every other quality improvement process (e.g. Lean, 6 Sigma, TQM, etc.)

Truth Four
Safety is the result of cultural norms.
Safety is a by-product of effective cultural norms. Norms are the “accepted way of behaving.” For example, operational excellence is a norm that ensures that your drivers and support staff do the right thing, the right way, the first time, every time.

Truth Five
Safety pays. It provides economic advantage.
Safe operators pay far less for losses and insurance, deliver on time and enjoy greater driver stability and loyal customers. Improving safety is the fastest path to improved profits.

Truth Six
Safety is not the same as compliance
Too many carriers judge their safety efforts on how well they are complying with the law. Compliance is a necessity but not the same as safety. Too much focus on keeping the government happy (CSA, HOS, etc.)takes your eye off the essential ball of keeping your stakeholders out of harm's way.

 A Series of Unfortunate Events

Franz, a globe-trotting wealthy man drives through the streets of a foreign city in a convertible with his wife. Someone throws a bomb at him. He deflects the bomb away with his hand and it explodes near people in his party. Some are hurt. Uninjured, he drives away and gives a brief speech at a welcoming event. Then he decides to scrap his itinerary and visit the hospital where the wounded people have been taken. His driver does not know the original route has been changed. He drives by a man who shoots him and his wife. Both die. It’s 1914. The man is Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Hungary. The city is Sarajevo in Bosnia. The fuse is lit. World War I begins soon thereafter. This story is the way many people view accidents: a series of unfortunate, out-of-control events. But accidents have causes, root causes, and those causes can be mitigated through correct actions.

9. Use Root Cause Analysis

When things go wrong, what was the real cause? You can ask “Why” five times and go back to the source of the problem. That’s the type of thinking that will keep problems from reoccurring.


"What's the real root of your safety problem?" "What's the real root of your safety problem?"

Training needs to be connected to problems that you know drivers will encounter.

Odds are you have pockets of problems with safety issues and that you have pockets of excellence. The trick is to teach the good things that the excellent drivers know to those who are suffering through accidents and incidents. What you don’t know can hurt you.

However, superficial examinations of what went wrong and what went right won’t be sufficient. A real look at causes means digging deep. And then you can’t leave the evidence buried. You need to bring it to light and expose it to everyone.

10. Take a Look In the Mirror

For some carriers, to call their safety strategy “fatally flawed” is a huge complement. For some, it’s not even that good. That’s because they have no strategy. It’s simply a roll with the punches approach with low goals and few metrics.

There are three fundamental components of a safety-focused organization:

  1. a culture that demands operational excellence
  2. systems to modify behavior
  3. systems to support behavior

Implementing operational excellence leads to World Class Safety. The financial benefits are remarkable, not just in the reduced cost of losses and lower insurance premiums, but also from improved performance at every level in the organization and across all departments.

One step at a time, safety performance can be improved no matter if your fleet includes flatbeds, tankers, dry vans, refrigerated, whatever. Costs go down. Consignee and employee satisfaction goes up. Ugly publicity goes away.

How many of the ten strategies are your organization using effectively? Learn more, act more and move toward world class safety.

Mark G. Gardner
Chief Executive Officer
Avatar Management Services, Inc
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