Safety leadership

June 1, 2007
WHAT DOES it take for a tank truck carrier to build a winning safety program? What is the value of a winning safety program to a fleet, and to the tank

WHAT DOES it take for a tank truck carrier to build a winning safety program? What is the value of a winning safety program to a fleet, and to the tank truck industry as a whole? How does a fleet establish an enduring safety culture?

Steve Niswander, vice-president of safety policy & regulatory relations at Groendyke Transport Inc, offered some answers to these questions and more during a recent interview with Bulk Transporter. He is as qualified as anyone in the tank truck industry when it comes to discussing winning safety programs.

Niswander was named Safety Director of the Year in 2006 by the American Trucking Associations (ATA). He was just the sixth tank truck industry safety professional to receive the award. Niswander also is a four-time recipient of the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) Safety Director of the Year Award, and he helped lead Groendyke Transport to four of its six NTTC Outstanding Performance Trophies for safety.

Over the course of 28 years at Groendyke Transport, Niswander has been an active member and leader in numerous state and national safety organizations, including the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, NTTC, and ATA. He was selected to serve as the 2007 chairman of the Oklahoma Trucking Association, as the organization celebrates its 75th anniversary and the state celebrates its statehood centennial.

Not surprisingly, he has some definite ideas on what it takes to build a winning safety program.

BT: What does it take to build a winning safety program?

Niswander: You've got to have total buy-in from the company president or owner on down.

BT: How do you get that?

Niswander: He either has to believe in the importance of a safety program from the outset or he has to understand that the alternative could be very expensive. The DOT won't hurt you. The police aren't going to hurt you. It's the plaintiff's attorneys that could put your company out of business.

Like Harold Groendyke, our company founder, used to say: There's no load too hot that it won't cool in a ditch. John Groendyke (Groendyke Transport chairman) says that the most economical way to haul a load is to only pick it up once. When you have that coming from the owner and extending down through the core of the company, you're going to operate legally. We want our shippers to know that we are safely managing their business every day of the week.

Here's another example of the commitment. Greg Hodgen (Groendyke Transport president) and a committee decided that we were going to have a 7/75 campaign — seventh Outstanding Performance Trophy for our 75th anniversary. We rolled out the program in May 2006. We handed out pins and stickers. We've got 7/75 hats that we are sending to our drivers. Prior to May, we had 14 DOT preventable accidents. From that point on through December 2006, we had seven DOT preventables.

The program raised awareness for everyone in our company. We send safety materials to the drivers and terminals every week. We give each terminal a weekly update on the number of days since their last spill, accident, and cargo claim. The numbers for the terminal are posted on a sign at the facility. There's a lot of peer pressure in the terminals to keep those numbers low.

We made tremendous strides in reducing accidents and incidents. For instance, we cut spills and leaks by 37%. Still, we knew our performance during the first part of 2006 pretty well eliminated us from the competition. We're going ahead with our campaign, and we plan to be a serious contender for the 2007 Outstanding Performance Trophy.

BT: Once you get the buy-in from the top leadership, what's the next step in building a winning safety program?

Niswander: You need a good safety team. We are fortunate at Groendyke to have a team of field safety coordinators. I tell them that they are facilitators. Their job is to find solutions to problems. They have to work together with drivers and terminal managers to fix problems. They can't just scold drivers.

Employees make the safety program a success or failure, and it is our job to help them present a positive attitude that represents our company well. We've had other drivers come to us and tell us that they never thought they were good enough to drive for Groendyke.

BT: What is the value of the pay envelope stuffers, posters, and such that are part of the safety program at Groendyke Transport?

Niswander: They pick up the other end. I tell drivers during orientation that safety is like a triangle. The driver sits at the point. The dispatcher and other company staffers make up another side. The last side is the driver's spouse at home. Payroll stuffers educate the spouses and tell them that we care. Help put pressure on your spouse to do it right and come home safely at the end of each trip.

BT: What is the value of a corporate safety culture, and why did safety matter so much to Groendyke Transport almost from the very beginning of the company?

Niswander: I think Harold Groendyke established that as the company culture from the start. There had been major accidents in the industry, one of which involved a Groendyke subsidiary. Those were horrible events, and they prompted us to start training programs to address the issues. The leaders of this company decided early on that we were going to do things right. Harold Groendyke hired some outstanding people to build the safety program, including Clarence Shelton and Bill Knight. I came to Groendyke Transport in 1979 as an assistant to Knight.

BT: What did it mean to work with Bill Knight?

Niswander: He was like a dad. He was a true southern gentleman. He was so easy going, but he could be stern when it was necessary. Many times he told me: Young man, serious is part of this job. You need to get serious. See, I was having fun. I enjoyed what I did. Bill was a wonderful instructor. He taught me everything, such as humility. There is no such thing as I. It's all we. We are in this together.

It was tough at times for me. New regulations were coming in at the same time that the trucking industry was deregulated. We sometimes had to take a hard line with employees over those new regulations (such as drug and alcohol testing). Driver physicals now meant something. It was hard at times for me, because I wanted to be friends with everyone.

Ten years after joining Groendyke Transport, I was promoted to safety director, and that was a major step in my career. The safety department was in charge of safety, personnel and driver hiring, training, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and environmental issues, safety meetings, terminal and driver awards, and banquets. New federal regulations were added to the challenges and workload.

Bill Knight retired in 1994, and I was named vice-president of safety & compliance at Groendyke Transport. I also was serving as chairman of the NTTC Tank Safety Council at the time. Throughout the years I've been with this company, we never stopped looking for ways to strengthen the safety program.

BT: What does it take to be an effective safety director?

Niswander: I was very fortunate because of Bill Knight. He did a lot to help me develop as a safety director. I think it's important to become active in the safety groups in the state trucking organizations. Get involved with ATA and NTTC. Attend the safety meetings and pick out mentors. I don't know of any safety director who won't work with someone who wants to learn.

One thing Bill Knight taught me about conferences was that I had to remember that the company was spending money for me to attend and learn. I was expected to be at every session, to learn, and to make sure I understood what was being discussed. That included asking questions. If you do that, you'll learn that you only ask a few stupid ones early on. After that, you'll study the topic enough to be able to ask decent questions.

BT: Why do you want to get involved in a safety organization to the point of becoming chairman?

Niswander: It's a lot of hard work and very time consuming, but you learn more. The more responsibility you take on, the better and more knowledgeable you become as a safety director. I like to be involved. I like to know what is going on. Sometimes you can have a positive impact on the industry and on the regulations we operate under.

BT: Were safety awards an objective as you beefed up the safety program at Groendyke Transport?

Niswander: They were an outgrowth of our overall safety effort. The awards were never a focus by themselves. Groendyke won its first NTTC Outstanding Performance Trophy in 1973, but the award didn't take on full significance for us until the second one in 1975.

It wasn't until we won in 1990 that we saw the award as more than a trophy. That year, Max Barton said, “We're going to take this award, and we are going to promote it just as much as we can.” We had a big blowout in Houston. We sent out photos to all of our shippers. We put ads in newspapers and magazines. We did a blitz, saying, “Hey, we're good. We're proud of our safety program, and we're going to announce it to the whole world.”

From that point on, the NTTC safety contest really evolved into a competitive effort. Others saw that we benefited from the promotional effort. Our business increased due to the marketing campaign.

Even better, we came back and won the contest again in 1991. We were the first tank truck carrier in the deregulated era to do that. We repeated that achievement in 1999 and 2000.

In 2000, we came out with an overall DOT frequency of .270. We only had 19 DOT accidents in over 70 million miles. Just eight of them were preventable. I think back-to-back wins of the Outstanding Performance Trophy will be tougher in the future.

BT: What made you go for ATA Safety Director of the Year, becoming just the sixth tank fleet safety director to earn the award?

Niswander: I went to several ATA meetings, and I was challenged by a colleague to submit an entry. John Conley (NTTC president) also told me to go for it.

My first thought was that it was just too much work. It was even more work than I thought. At first it looked simple, but I found out that I needed to document everything I've ever done that had any safety impact. I also had to document all awards I had received over the years, even going back to the Air Force.

The first year I submitted an entry, it didn't go anywhere. I was discouraged, but John Conley pushed me to enter again. He said don't give up. I got some advice from ATA on ways to make the entry better. They said to provide supporting documentation for every item submitted as part of the entry. I reorganized and expanded the entry. It was harder to put together than I thought it would be, but it was worth the effort.

BT: Can a safety director at a small carrier win the ATA Safety Director of the Year?

Niswander: Yes, absolutely. You don't have to be from a big carrier. It's all about your involvement in the industry. I think the factors that helped me most include being with the same company for 28 years and having company leaders (John Groendyke, Max Barton, and Greg Hodgen) who supported projects such as the tanker rollover prevention program.

BT: What does an award like this mean in a broader context for Groendyke?

Niswander: It should show that Groendyke believes in safety enough that it allows its people to get involved and make a difference in the industry, not only at the local and state levels, but also at the national level. That's what I hope it means. I also hope it says to customers that Groendyke doesn't just talk about safety; it's out there leading the way.

BT: An industry wide tanker rollover prevention campaign certainly helped you earn the ATA Safety Director of the Year recognition. What was the driving force behind that program?

Niswander: I was at an ATA safety meeting in Washington DC, and a DOT speaker announced that the department was going to resurrect an investigation into rollover protection in cargo tanks. I realized that if they looked at protection, they also would examine the rollovers themselves. Any government study was almost certain to result in mandates.

After speaking with Greg Hodgen, I approached the NTTC staff and told them we needed to begin benchmarking to find out what was causing tanker rollovers. Other tank fleet safety directors expressed support, but nothing happened. No one provided any data. Greg made the same request to the NTTC executive committee, but it was met with resistance.

Then we turned to J J Keller. We wanted to do something proactive that would provide protection in court. We needed a way to prove that we are putting out information on rollover prevention, drivers are being trained, and they have signed off on it.

Working with Sue Bowen at J J Keller, we came up with the poster program. She came up a skill card that includes a 10-question test. The driver takes the test, signs it, and we put it in his training file. A payroll stuffer is sent to the driver's house. Groendyke got the program started by buying 1,000 payroll stuffers and skill cards and 35 posters. The bill came to $10,000. That was the seed money. It comes out to $9.97 a driver for a year's worth of rollover training materials.

We now have a committee of fleet safety managers overseeing the program. No poster or skill card goes to print until we sign off on it.

BT: Some of the latest statistics indicate somewhere around two tanker rollovers a day in the United States. In light of that, is the training program achieving its intended objective?

Niswander: I feel we are making a difference with the training program and posters. We are educating people. We are getting the word out. Even some shippers are part of the program. We're 16 months into the program, and we've sent 700 posters to 140 locations. We're also sending out 15,000 skill cards and 15,000 payroll stuffers every month. J J Keller is going to make it a stock product in their catalog.

BT: Besides tanker rollovers, what are some of the other key safety challenges faced by tank truck carriers today?

Niswander: Driver retention and recruitment, hours of service, highway construction, and traffic congestion. One thing that has brought the tank truck industry to where it is today is the fact that the suppliers in this nation have their inventories riding on truck tires. They rely on just-in-time deliveries to their customers. It puts incredible pressure on our drivers, who are being told by shippers that a late delivery could shut down a plant.

Highway conditions are becoming more challenging. Congestion is getting worse, especially in urban areas. Highways have deteriorated in many parts of the country.

BT: What factors are part of the hours of service issue?

Niswander: One of the biggest challenges is finding a place to park just to take a rest break. Finding a place to park at a rest stop east of the Mississippi (River) is like finding a diamond in a haystack. Some states wake you up after several hours to make room for someone else. Drivers end up sleeping on on-ramps and off-ramps. It's an accident waiting to happen.