IN A SHORT five years, Superior Carriers was able to fundamentally reshape its safety culture. It was a winning change that should generate dividends for many years to come.
By attacking safety issues in an all-out campaign, the Oak Brook, Illinois-based tank truck carrier was able to achieve some spectacular results. For instance, rollovers were reduced from a high of 10 in 2008 to zero in 2013.
The dramatic turnaround in the safety program helped earn the chemical hauler its first Outstanding Performance Trophy in the National Tank Truck Carriers annual safety contest for 2013. Superior Carriers, a wholly owned division of Superior Bulk Logistics, earned the award with an accident frequency of 0.382 accidents per million miles in the 40-90 million miles class.
In the NTTC annual safety contest, Superior Carriers also received the Grand Awards for Competitive Safety in the 40-90 million miles class and the Personnel Safety Contest, in which the company recorded 0.19 lost-time injuries per 100 employees. Randy Vaughn, Superior Bulk Logistics vice-president of administration and Responsible Care Coordinator, was named NTTC’s Safety Professional of the Year.
“The Outstanding Performance Trophy belongs to every employee at this company,” says Len Fletcher, Superior Bulk Logistics chief executive officer. “It was truly an honor to win this award among such an exceptional, large group of safe and competitive NTTC carrier companies. This award is testament to our company-wide values and safety commitment. For over 70 years, Superior Carriers has exemplified service and safety excellence while being one of the largest companies in the bulk truck carrier industry in North America.
“This trophy is so important to us that we sent a framed photograph of it to every terminal, and we asked every employee at each terminal to sign the photo. We put up banners celebrating the trophy at each terminal, and we gave each employee a watch commemorating the trophy win.
“Our safety program means everything to us. We don’t want to see anyone get hurt. Safety is a critical part of our risk management process, and it saves us money. It helps us be more competitive in the market.
Brian Nowak, president of Superior Carriers, adds: “We’re humbled to be among the best of the best with this award. This is the single most important moment for me in my years with this industry. What an honor this is for our entire organization. Winning this trophy was a total team effort. I cannot overstate the extent of our appreciation to all of our employees and contractors—especially our drivers.
“The most critical thing we do is keep our people safe. And we owe it to the communities we drive through to safeguard our natural resources and the public health. Finally, our quality commitment to our customers mandates that we practice exemplary safety at their locations and with their products. With customers requiring more root cause analysis and process improvement, they are our true safety partners.
“We are active with many of our customers in the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care program. We have regular audits, a commitment that we believe helps reinforce our safety culture. We live the Responsible Care objectives every day.”
Gary Watt, Superior Bulk Logistics senior vice-president and chief marketing officer, says: “We were delighted to receive this award. Congratulatory messages came in from many of our customers, and special mention was made from the podiums of two industry conferences I attended in the past couple of months. This further underscores the importance this award garners in the bulk logistics community.”
Vaughn says the trophy and being named NTTC Safety Professional of the Year were great honors. “I believe deeply in the safety culture and it is part of my life,” he says “I work with an exceptional team, and as a team they contributed significantly to installing and presenting the training for the programs I introduced to our safety culture. Our drivers, especially, played a vital part in our winning this award.”
The first steps toward winning the trophy started in 2008, the year Vaughn was hired as director of Environmental Health, Safety, and Security for Superior Bulk Logistics. He acknowledges that during the interview for the position, former Superior Carriers President Bill O’Donnell said the carrier would very much like to win NTTC’s Outstanding Performance Trophy for safety.
The company that Vaughn joined is one of the largest in the tank truck industry and one that is still privately held. Superior Carriers is the chemical and hazardous materials hauling side of the Superior Bulk Logistics operation. On the foodgrade side is Carry Transit.
Founded in the 1940s, Superior Carriers generates about 75% of the parent company’s revenue with operations across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. “We’ve been in Mexico close to 20 years, the last 11 with our partner Transpormex,” Nowak says.
Superior Carriers employs about 740 drivers (company employees and owner-operators) and operates roughly 740 tractors and 1,300 tank trailers. Drivers and vehicles are dispersed among 32 US terminals, 10 of which have wash racks. The company provides service from 25 SuperFlo transload sites, three of which are in Mexico.
“We’ve built a strong operation,” Nowak says. “We’re optimistic about the economy throughout North America—especially in the energy sector—and we have aggressive growth plans. Our customers include the major chemical producers, as well as specialty chemical companies. Many of these companies are involved in plant expansions now, especially along the I-10 corridor.”
Safety has always been important for the company. “We didn’t have any big safety problems, but we knew we could get better,” Watt says. “Our program was driven by the safety department, and we realized we had to involve all of the employees to move to the next level.”
Vaughn adds out that it is one thing for the safety department to talk about safety. It’s quite another to get full employee buy-in.
“We had to change the safety culture to the point that everyone was watching out for each other,” he says. “We tell our employees now that they have the power to stop unsafe activity. If you see a safety problem, you can stop it immediately. We also rely a lot more on peer pressure now.
“At the management level, safety is the first topic on our bi-weekly conference calls. Managers are encouraged to talk about near misses and customer issues.”
One of the first big tests of the safety culture change was a campaign focused on reducing tractor-trailer rollovers. “We had 10 rollovers in 2008 and eight in 2009,” Vaughn says. “Two big reasons were driver complacency and a lack of understanding of the factors that cause rollovers.”
Training in rollover prevention was beefed up, including participation in the NTTC/JJ Keller rollover prevention program. An American Transportation Research Institute study US highway locations where rollovers are more likely was incorporated into the driver training.
“Despite some initial push-back, we kept putting rollover prevention training in place,” Vaughn says. “We also spec technology, such as roll stability systems, on our vehicles. However, we believe that the best safety device in the truck is the driver.”
Proof that the program is working came in 2013, when Superior Carriers recorded zero rollovers. “Although perfect safety statistics are always our goal, it is difficult to make them a reality,” says Nowak. “Zero rollovers is an outstanding accomplishment and a tribute to our drivers and our commitment to safety and attention to detail. From a historical perspective, you’d have to go back decades to find the last time we as a company achieved this sought-after objective.”
Rollover prevention remains a priority, but Superior Bulk Logistics and its fleet divisions are focused on reduced accident frequency in 2014 as it relates to hitting fixed objects. The company’s “GOAL (Get Out And Look)” initiative reminds drivers that these types of incidents can be prevented by taking extra time to check surroundings.
Fall protection is another priority. Vaughn was an early supporter of the Cargo Tank Risk Management Committee (CTRMC), which developed a protocol to protect workers on top of tank trailers. “This is an important program, and I’m very passionate about the safety objectives,” he says. “Our drivers have had some serious falls, and we believe we have to be proactive in eliminating the potential for these incidents.”
To that end, Vaughn has worked with CTRMC to change the design of ladders on trailers to make it easier for drivers to maintain a three-point contact. Trailers also have pneumatically operated fall-protection rails around the domelid. Superior Bulk Logistics also is looking at various options to keep drivers off tank trailers.
“We already have remote-actuated vent controls,” Vaughn says. “We’re looking at electronic seals, but we need scanning devices that can read an RFID tag from a distance.”
Hire the best
Perhaps most importantly, the company is focused on hiring only the most safety-focused drivers and retaining them. “We turned down more than 1,000 qualified drivers last year, because they did not meet our requirements,” Nowak says. “I don’t believe there is a driver shortage as much as there is a shortage of qualified drivers. We want people who want to be part of a winning team.”
Like many tank truck fleets, one of the biggest challenges faced by Superior Carriers is the greying of its driver force. “We have drivers ranging in age from their mid-20s to 70s,” Nowak says. “The average age of drivers in our fleet is 52 years old, but we are trying to lower that average. We are aggressively seeking younger drivers, and we have programs in place to train them from the ground up.”
The company starts the selection process by looking for experienced drivers with a safe driving record. In addition to a physical exam, applicants are tested for dexterity.
All new hires and newly signed independent contractors are sent through a week of training at the Superior Bulk Logistics Training & Development Center in Greer, South Carolina. That training is in addition to the instruction they receive at their home terminal.
In addition to drivers, sales professionals, terminal managers, dispatchers, and driver trainers also attend classes at the Training and Development Center (TDC). The TDC utilizes SMART Board technology, driving simulators, and hands-on equipment training to keep pace with safety, security, operational, and regulatory changes.
For some in the company, training at the TDC is not a one-time event. For instance, Superior Bulk Logistics’ driver trainers return to the TDC for re-certification every two years. Parts of the refresher curriculum are mandated by federal law (HM-126F hazardous materials training), but the course also reviews changes to federal regulations (including drug and alcohol policies), Superior Carriers travel order requirements, hours of service (including electronic on-board recorder use), and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program. A special presentation covers key issues related to training new hires and entry-level drivers.
Initial training is just the start of the safety management process for drivers. Superior Bulk Logistics developed its own performance analysis system that was tweaked earlier this year for greater effectiveness. The system tracks driver and customer performance factors.
“Our safety process has become more behaviorally based, and it’s all about helping each other do a better job,” Vaughn says. “We look at all of our drivers by fleet operation and by region. We use the 80/20 rule with our focus being on the 20% who need extra attention.”
The safety message gets constant reinforcement through the monthly audio magazine that is distributed to every driver. “It’s an opportunity for every part of the management team to communicate directly with drivers,” Watt says.
After selecting and training drivers, Superior Carriers works hard to keep them. Limiting driver turnover to just 20% (including retirements) in 2013 was a significant achievement and speaks volumes about the work that has gone into creating a great work environment for drivers. The driver force actually grew somewhat in 2013, and management expects more growth this year.
The company offers what it believes to be one of the best pay and benefits packages in the industry. “Instead of sign-on and safety bonuses, we focus directly on driver pay,” Nowak says. “The overall benefits package (for company drivers and independent contractors) is far more important. We don’t believe sign-on bonuses build long-term stability in the driver force, and we believe safety should be a condition of employment, not something that needs monetary rewards. We dropped the safety bonuses in 2004.”
Rewards programs to incentivize safety have not been completely eliminated, though. Superior Bulk Logistics has launched a Million Mile Program across its entire system that rewards safety achievement terminal by terminal. Everyone at the terminal—not just drivers—gets recognized for safe performance. It’s a total team concept.
“It’s a great program,” Vaughn says. “Peer pressure plays a big role in making this program work.”
Drivers at Superior Carriers have career track options that include opportunities to become independent contractors with their own tractors or pursue management opportunities within the company. “Drivers can move into dispatching and managing terminals,” Nowak says. “Many of our terminal managers are former drivers.”
The company promotes from within by preference and has a mentoring program to help groom future managers. Over a dozen employees a year are sent to participate in NTTC’s middle management training program.
Drivers also had a say in recent tractor acquisitions. Superior Carriers acquired 48 new Mack and Peterbilt tractors in 2013 and is adding 83 more this year and 74 in 2015. Eighty percent of the new tractors are Mack Pinnacles, and the rest are Peterbilt 579s. The orders included sleeper and daycab units.
For engines, the Macks have a Mack MP-8 rated at 415 horsepower, and the Petes have a 425-hp Cummins ISX-12. Sleeper Macks were ordered with a 10-speed Eaton Fuller, and the daycabs have a Mack M-drive automated transmission. The Petes were ordered with Eaton Fuller’s 10-speed UltraShift PLUS transmission.
Running gear for the Macks includes Hendrickson Steertek steering axles with Airtek air-ride assist and Bendix disc brakes on the steer axle. Webasto heaters help reduce idling when the driver is in the sleeper. Tractor-mounted product handling hardware includes Roper pumps and Gardner Denver compressors.
Safety equipment in the tractors includes: Bendix roll stability, the C-270 collision avoidance system from Mobileye transmitting through the Omnitracs on-board computer system, and See More Mirrors. The mirror system gives a driver the ability to hold down a button on the transmission shifter to automatically rotate the mirrors to eliminate blind spots when merging into traffic.
On the tank trailer side, Superior Carriers purchased 72 new stainless steel tankers from Stainless Tank & Equipment in 2013, with another 60 on order this year. The trailer purchases were handled through Stuart Tank Sales, which received Superior Carrier’s 2013 President’s Supplier Excellence Award.
Trailers purchased over the past two years have a 7,000-gallon capacity. The carrier purchased both rear discharge and center-unload units. The insulated trailers have a 16-pounds-per-gallon rating and a 300°F maximum temperature capability. Hardware includes Girard venting and ground-level vapor recovery, Betts discharge and internal valves and domelids, Truck-Lite LED enhanced lighting, and a fall protection system that consists of a safety ladder and air-assisted collapsible safety railing by the domelid.
For running gear, Superior Carriers specified Hendrickson Intraax air-suspension systems with Tiremaax Pro automatic tire inflation and Meritor antilock braking with Meritor roll stability.
After spending more than $25 million in 2013 with more allocated this year ($6 million just for trailers) for capital investment, Superior Bulk Logistics and its carrier units are clearly looking to the future.
“We continue to search and provide our driving force with the best possible equipment and safety systems to perform their work,” Fletcher says. “These investments will help ensure that we remain a strong competitor.” ♦