Trophy no accident

June 1, 2002
IT WAS in 1993 when Bill Usher challenged the Usher Transport Inc management team to win the coveted Outstanding Performance Trophy in the National Tank

IT WAS in 1993 when Bill Usher challenged the Usher Transport Inc management team to win the coveted Outstanding Performance Trophy in the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) annual safety contest. Nine years later, that goal has been achieved.

The Louisville, Kentucky-based trucking company became the 53rd winner of the tank truck industry's top safety award. Along with the trophy, the company earned the Grand Award in the 13 million to 15 million miles class, the Honor Award for the Personnel Safety Contest, and a 17-year Improvement Award. Mike Baker, Usher Transport safety director, was named NTTC Safety Director of the Year.

“These awards are the result of hard work and dedication by everyone at Usher Transport,” says Bill Usher, company president. “We set the goal, but it was our workers who made it possible. Safety is a key part of our company culture. Winning the Outstanding Performance Trophy justifies all of the effort over these past nine years.

“We always treated safety as a profit center. Even when the company was growing at 12% a year during the last couple of years, we kept up our safety standards. Our safety team has gotten better and better. Nobody in this company pushes over the line when it comes to safety. Even dispatchers are chosen based on their concern for safety.

“All of this effort has added up to significant savings for our operation. We had just $40,000 in claims last year, and that helped minimize our insurance increase. We got hit over a two-year period with a 240% increase, but it could have been worse. We are still well below the industry average on a per-truck basis.”

Cloud nine

Baker acknowledges that the Outstanding Performance Trophy is a great bonus for the safety efforts of the past nine years. “I've been on cloud nine since it was announced that we had won the trophy,” he says. “We've wanted to win this for years.”

Baker adds that Usher Transport will share the honor with its employees in various ways. Terminal dinners will be held over the course of the summer to give everyone a chance to see the trophy. Special jackets commemorating the award will be handed out to all employees, including office staff. Management also has plans to order special decals for the trailers in the fleet.

For Usher Transport, the Outstanding Performance Trophy is more than just the top safety award for the tank truck industry. On a more personal level, it is evidence of just how far the carrier has come in its transition to one of the safest tank truck fleets in the United States.

The road to the Outstanding Performance Trophy started in the 1970s when Usher Transport was still a relatively small petroleum hauler based in Paducah, Kentucky. The company had no safety department, and safety issues were not particularly stressed. All of that changed with a rollover that resulted in a major fire and multiple fatalities.

“Sometimes it takes a bad accident to make you serious about safety,” Usher says. “That accident got our attention, and we set up a safety department. That was our first big step on the way to the Outstanding Performance Trophy. We began to realize that a good safety program gave us the ability to provide better service to our customers.”

By the 1980s, Usher Transport was qualifying for awards in the NTTC's Competitive Safety Contest, and it was recognized for seven years of safety improvement in 1985. By 1990, the carrier had achieved a frequency rate of .19 accidents per million miles. For 2001, the year in which Usher Transport qualified for the Outstanding Performance Trophy, the accident frequency rate was .144.

What is particularly impressive is that the carrier improved safety performance even as it grew and diversified. The fleet consists of 240 tractors and 280 trailers operating from eight terminals in Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Rail transfer facility

Also part of the operation is Mid America Rail Truck Transfer, a public rail transfer facility in Louisville. Capabilities at the transload operation include compressor, pump, and steam. Forty car spots are available. The facility is handling beverage alcohol, caustic, solvents, petrochemicals, antifreeze and deicer, fertilizer, and concrete additives.

Petroleum accounts for about 60% of the carrier's business today. Other cargoes include asphalt, chemicals, acid, and caustic. A handful of dry bulk trailers are used to transport powdered detergent to packaging plants.

On the petroleum side under the direction of Jim Lagler, the carrier has carved out a thriving niche business refueling locomotives and river towboats. Begun in 1996, the refueling operation has nine dedicated tractors. Tank trailers used for locomotive refueling are specially configured units that are owned by Norfolk Southern Railroad.

“We provide locomotive refueling solely for Norfolk Southern, and we have equipment operating out of locations in Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey,” says Alan W Usher, vice-president of Usher Transport. “This has become a very good business for us.

“For the tow boats, we use our own petroleum transports to haul fuel to refueling barges. The operation is Coast Guard-approved, and our drivers are certified.”

Usher Transport is still primarily a regional operation, but the region has grown significantly larger over the years. Fleet operations are concentrated in the eastern United States, especially a 500-mile radius of Louisville.

However, the carrier serves some customers in California, and hauls synthetic lubricants from a plant in Beaumont, Texas. Usher Transport rigs also are making runs into the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

Baker and David Guess, assistant safety director, are responsible for ensuring that the fleet operates safely no matter where the trucks go. It's a task that keeps both of them busy. Together, they traveled about 95,000 miles over the past year, auditing terminals and inspecting vehicles and drivers.

Their accident-prevention efforts paid off with six incidents incurred by the fleet in 2001, none of them caused by Usher Transport drivers. This was the third year for an aggressive accident-reduction effort at the carrier. This year, the objective is to reduce accidents by 25% overall.

“Last year our drivers did their best to avoid accidents, but other motorists veered over and hit our trucks,” Baker says. “One of the biggest challenges we face is getting motorists to share the road with us. They just don't seem to see the trucks. Our drivers have to be on guard constantly.”

No Zone campaign

He adds that Usher Transport remains an active participant in the No Zone campaign that was developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The program isn't as active as it used to be, but we still make presentations in Kentucky,” he says. “We also encourage motorists to help us monitor truck driver activity on the highway. Public participation is minimal, though.”

Even without the public involvement, the carrier is very serious about monitoring the performance of its drivers. Baker and Guess observe any of the Usher Transport rigs they see during their travels. In addition, the carrier has contracted with Sidnal Inc, St Petersburg, Florida, to perform random roadside observations. Sidnal turns in 15 to 25 reports each month.

Driver cooperation

All of this is in addition to the formal roadside inspections that have become increasingly frequent in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC. Driver cooperation with all of the monitoring is encouraged with a variety of incentives.

“David and I carry a vanful of reward items to pass out when we perform our own vehicle inspections,” Baker says. “We pass out hats, coffee mugs, and $5 McDonalds gift certificates. It's just our way of saying thanks for doing a good job.”

Drivers receive a more substantial reward for passing roadside safety inspections performed by enforcement officials. Each clean report increases a driver's safety bonus, while defect reports lead to deductions. Usher Transport paid out more than $70,000 in bonuses to its 204 drivers in 2001.

The latest addition to the safety incentive programs is a prize that was awarded for the first time last year. Drivers become eligible for a special drawing by making it from January to November with no defect write-ups, traffic citations, verified customer complaints, and accidents or incidents.

Those that qualify have a chance to win a cruise or $1,500 cash. About 59% of the Usher Transport drivers qualified for the drawing last year.

Security concerns

Security was always a part of the safety effort at Usher Transport, but it is receiving much greater focus today. The safety department has helped evaluate security preparedness for the fleet. Driver records were reviewed, and the carrier participated in a Department of Transportation security visit.

Security considerations are part of safety meetings that are held every 45 to 60 days. Security issues are discussed anytime Baker and Guess meet with drivers. “We believe we have been successful at raising overall security awareness among our drivers,” Baker says.

Guess is in charge of the carrier's new employee identification card program. A digital camera has been used to gather employee photographs in the field, but Guess also uses a special photo ID camera from ID House, Kaysville UT. The rest of his ID card system consists of a desktop computer with Microsoft Works and an ID card template in the Works database. Completed cards are laminated.

Usher Transport spent about $1,000 on its ID card system. The cards will be reissued every two years. When a driver leaves the carrier, the ID card is returned to the safety department, and all of the customers served by that driver are notified.

Even with the stricter security, Usher Transport is having no difficulty attracting new drivers at this time. One reason is that several freight carriers have shut down in the Louisville area over the past year or so, which has increased the supply of available drivers.

A benefit is that Usher Transport can be selective in who it puts behind the wheel of its tractors. “We qualify perhaps four out of every 10 applicants,” Baker says. “We don't ask for tank experience, but we require at least two years of over-the-road truck driving. Our minimum age is 25.”

New hires spend three days of classroom instruction learning about Usher Transport and its policies. They also receive all government-mandated instruction. This is followed by up to two weeks of on-the-job training, and that's just the beginning.

Drivers receive any specialized training required by customers. For instance, those involved with locomotive refueling receive a three-day orientation in Louisville, followed by at least 120 hours of supervised on-the-job training. The process finishes with a check ride with the supervisor at the refueling location.

Drivers are recertified every two years for all of the hazardous materials cargoes that they handle. The half-day programs can be general or customer-specific. “We have significantly enhanced our training, and we are using it as a marketing tool with our customers,” Usher says.

Equipment safety is included in all of the training and retraining. Considerable effort has gone into making the Usher Transport vehicles safe, in addition to standardizing specifications as much as possible.

“We try to stay with a standard specification because it provides consistency for our drivers and mechanics, which is a definite safety factor,” says Bill Mangus, maintenance director for Usher Transport. “In addition, we usually can get equipment faster.”

Petroleum trailers

For petroleum, the typical four-compartment DOT406 aluminum trailers in the fleet are supplied by Heil Trailer International and has a 9,200-gallon capacity. The newest trailers have Emco Wheaton's recently introduced Sequenced Air System (SAS) that operates all vents and valves through a central control panel.

SAS is an integrated system that has been available in Europe for about 10 years. It was designed with safety in mind and gives the driver a set sequence for loading and unloading procedures. Usher Transport was the first petroleum hauler in the United States to put the system on its trailers, and it has been specifying SAS for about 2½ years.

A key feature of the system is the air-actuated emergency shutdown. Usher Transport specifies the shutdown buttons on three corners of the trailer — two at the front and one at the rear on the curbside. Once a button is pushed, the product handling system will shutdown in no more than four seconds.

Also part of the system are Emco Wheaton sequenced 5" × 4" internal valves that maximize product flow. If the compressed air supply is lost, the operator can still unload product by manually jacking open the poppet seat. Bottom loading is through an improved API adapter that has bushings on all of the running surfaces for smooth operation and longer life.

Vapors are recovered through a 5" × 4" high-flow vapor valve. A sight glass on the valve gives the driver a safe way of checking to determine whether product is trapped in the vapor lines.

The guard bar brake interlock is another safety feature in the SAS system. The guard bar opens when the master control valve has been actuated and the vapor vents have been opened. This sets the brakes. After loading or unloading, the guard bar must be lowered to the locked position to release the brakes.

LED lighting

Emco Wheaton vapor vents are mounted in Betts Tiona domelids. Product handling hardware also includes Scully and Civacon overfill protection systems.

LED lighting is used throughout the tank trailers and is supplied by Truck-Lite Co Inc and Peterson Mfg Co. “We standardized on LED lighting because it is brighter, easier to see, and delivers longer life,” Mangus says.

The newest petroleum trailers have Reyco suspensions with composite leaf springs. Timbren hollow rubber springs provide added stability and a better ride. “This suspension combination works well for us,” Mangus says. “We will move to air suspensions on petroleum trailers eventually, but we think they still are too heavy.”

In addition to the composite springs, Usher Transport saves weight with aluminum wheels, Centrifuse brake drums, and Conmet aluminum hubs. The carrier is getting ready to test some Michelin widebase single tires.

“We can save approximately 800 pounds per rig with the Michelin tires,” Mangus says. “Our drivers seem comfortable with this tire so far.”

Chemical fleet

A variety of trailer makes and models are used for other products. For instance, E D Etnyre & Co and Stainless Tank & Equipment have provided asphalt trailers to the Usher Transport fleet.

Brenner Tank Inc and Polar Tank Trailer Inc are the primary suppliers of chemical trailers. The carrier uses 7,000-gallon DOT407 trailers for chemicals and 5,000-gallon DOT412 trailers for acids. The fleet includes insulated and uninsulated units.

Hardware includes Girard and Fort Vale pressure- and vacuum-relief vents and Betts outlets. Chemical vapor recovery vents are specified as needed.

“We welcome the new chemical vapor recovery recommended practice from TTMA (Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association),” Mangus says. “I hope that NTTC and the chemical industry will get behind this recommended practice to promote uniformity at the loading racks. We need a standardized vapor recovery system because it's hard to make our trailers versatile enough to handle the variety of systems now in place at chemical plants.”

All of the acids and many of the chemicals are air-unloaded with tractor-mounted compressors. In cases where cargoes are pumped off, tractors are equipped with Blackmer, Ranger, or Roper pumps. Gates and Goodyear product hoses are supplied by Hart Industries. Only name-brand fittings (PT Coupling and Dixon among others) are used with the hoses.

“We stay away from anything that doesn't carry a brand,” Mangus says. “This is critical hardware. We want to know that a manufacturer has enough pride to stand behind the product.”

Air suspensions are becoming standard for the chemical fleet. The newest trailers have Hendrickson's Intraax air suspension and axle system. Aluminum disc wheels are preferred except in applications where steel performs better.

Maintenance effort

In addition to buying quality equipment, Usher Transport keeps it in top shape with an aggressive maintenance program. Equipment is inspected anytime it moves through the company maintenance shops in Louisville and Paducah. Usher Transport uses commercial shops in other locations.

A majority of federally required cargo tank tests and inspections are performed at the Louisville shop, which has an “R” stamp. Mechanics also handle limited vessel repairs on aluminum trailers. “We try to avoid major barrel repairs because we just don't have enough floor space,” Mangus says.

Mechanics keep a close watch on safety-related hardware, such as pressure-relief vents. These items are replaced once they show signs of wear. Vents seldom make it more than two years before being replaced, according to Mangus.

Product hoses are hydrostatically tested annually. Testing is done in a special fixture in the Louisville shop, and the hoses are tagged afterward.

The maintenance program contributes as much to the safety effort as every other part of the operation. As Mike Baker says, it took a team effort to build the sort of winning safety program worthy of NTTC's Outstanding Performance Trophy.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.