Hard work brings top NTTC safety award for Mission Petroleum Carriers Inc

June 1, 2004
TEN YEARS of hard work went into building an award-winning safety program at Mission Petroleum Carriers Inc in Houston, Texas. All of the effort paid

TEN YEARS of hard work went into building an award-winning safety program at Mission Petroleum Carriers Inc in Houston, Texas. All of the effort paid off when the company received the 2003 Outstanding Performance Trophy in the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) annual safety contest.

In addition to the top award in the NTTC program, Mission Carriers also earned the grand award in the 36- to 45-million mile class of the competitive safety contest, grand awards in that mileage class in the personnel safety contest and the competitive contest for safety officials, and a seven-year safety improvement award. Roy Acton, Mission Carriers' vice-president of safety & compliance, was named NTTC safety director of the year.

“Safety always has been important at this company,” says Arch Kelly, Mission Carriers president. “Still, we kicked the program into a higher gear about a decade ago. We decided that our number one goal was to build the absolute best safety record in the industry.

“Our three main objectives are to ensure that we don't hurt our employees, members of the public, or the environment. Everybody in this company has ownership in the program. When you have a good safety program, everything else falls into place.”

It's a safety program that extends into the community. For instance, Mission Carriers has been a part of the American Chemistry Council's TransCAER program since the early 1990s. “We work with the Local Emergency Planning Committees, and we help emergency responders understand the characteristics of hazardous materials,” Acton says. “We do a lot of educational outreach.”

Busy fleet

Having a safety program that is deeply ingrained at all levels of the company has been particularly beneficial over the past several months. Like so many other tank truck fleets in the United States, Mission Carriers has been running flat out since the beginning of 2004.

“We've seen a significant increase in business, and it has definitely stressed our dispatchers and terminal managers,” says David Fontenot, Mission Carriers executive vice-president. “Along with other tank truck carriers, we're facing capacity constraints that have forced us to delay or turn down loads from shippers other than our core customers.

“We're having to work harder to ensure that quality and safety are not sacrificed in the push to handle the growing shipment volume. Without the safety tradition that is in place here, it might be tempting to ease off on some safety-related procedures and policies.”

Mission Carriers serves a broad spectrum of customers across North America. With operations hauling chemicals, refined petroleum, and crude oil, the privately held tank truck fleet reported gross revenues of $73 million in 2003.

Dispersed among 20 terminals — all but five of them in Texas — the fleet of 551 tractors and 846 tank trailers runs throughout the United States and Canada. Access to the Mexico market comes through an interline partnership with Transportes Sal-Ave.

“We're what some shippers call a super-regional carrier,” says John Featherly, Mission Carriers vice-president of operations. “A large percentage of our business is concentrated along the Gulf Coast. However, we've offered Canada service since the 1980s, and we've been moving loads to and from Mexico for almost the entire time this company has been in business.”

Private start

Mission Carriers started in May 1965 as a private fleet delivering fuels to service stations owned by parent company TETCO. Home base at the time was San Antonio, Texas, and the fleet name came from that city's five Spanish missions.

“We shifted from private carriage to the for-hire side in 1970 when we started building our chemical hauling operations,” Kelly says. “We moved the fleet headquarters to Houston because that's where the chemical business is.”

Over the years, the carrier has faced many difficulties. However, few have posed as much of a challenge as the driver shortage, which has been exacerbated by the growing economy and hours-of-service productivity losses.

“We could put 100 more drivers to work right now in this economy, but we just can't find them,” Featherly says. “We're hiring as many as we can from among the applicants who meet our requirements.

“We've had a shortage of drivers who meet our standards for quite awhile, and it's getting worse. It's also hard to attract younger drivers. The youngest drivers we get (mid 20s to 30s) want to work in the petroleum and crude oil operations where they are home after every shift. Very few of these people want to switch over to the chemical side, which has the longer hauls.

“It's going to take better shipper-carrier partnerships to make the chemical hauls more attractive to drivers. We're on new ground with shippers because we have to begin to see our drivers as a valuable part of the transportation operation and not treat them as a commodity.

“We need more loading and delivery flexibility from shippers and consignees. Preloading conserves hours for longhaul drivers but it requires more shuttle drivers. We're looking at relays of 250 to 500 miles so drivers only have to spend one night on the road with each trip. All of this is going to take better communication with our customers.”

Driver qualifications

Despite the industry-wide driver shortage, Mission Carriers hasn't relaxed its hiring standards or its training requirements. To be hired, an applicant must be at least 23 years old, have a safe driving record, and have two years of over-the-road experience.

“We will take a driving school graduate with one year of over-the-road experience,” Acton says. “Tanker experience is preferred, but we get a lot of recruits with none.”

To find new candidates, Mission Carriers relies on a variety of resources. However, the company's own 500-plus drivers continually get the best results.

“Our drivers are very selective about the people they recommend for a job here,” Acton says. “We do pay a recruiting bonus. The driver who recommends a candidate gets the bonus in two installments — when the new hire reaches 90 days and 180 days with Mission Carriers. If we can keep a new hire for six months, we'll have him longterm.”

In addition to the personal recommendations of Mission Carriers drivers, the fleet's safety program helps attract new hires. “A good truck driver wants to work with a safe carrier,” Acton says.

Basic responsibility for coordinating the safety effort at Mission Carriers falls on Acton and a team that includes three safety managers. Two auditors make sure driver logs are accurate. An administrative manager and four staffers handle a variety of compliance issues.

For a new hire, the spotlight is on safety from the moment the orientation training starts. Initial training is completed within the first 30 days that the driver is employed by Mission Carriers. The orientation takes 30-34 hours and is provided at the driver's home terminal. Classes can be as small as two or three drivers.

Initial training is broken down into four components — Hazmat certification, Mission Orientation Program, Driver trainer, and Customer products. “We use a variety of teaching techniques in the process,” Acton says. “It includes hand-on practice and role-playing.”

The Mission Orientation Program covers the basic driving requirements associated with handling liquid cargoes and the Smith System Decision Driving program. Other topics include accidents, spills, and incidents; railroad crossing safety; federal hours of service; driver log management; fatigue management; road rage; cargo tank characteristics; product transfer systems; tire fires; personal protective equipment; confined-space policies; and slips, trips, and falls.

Trainers explain during the driver log session that Mission Carriers uses the Keller Scan system to review every log for accuracy. The log reviews are done at the main office in Houston.

New hires do a lot more than practice driving with the Mission Carriers driver trainers. They work on becoming proficient with product transfer equipment and the paperwork, including driver logs and shipping papers. They also practice highway courtesy techniques.

During both classroom and on-the-job training, newly hired drivers obtain the certification needed to handle specific customer products. This training is conducted either by customer officials or by Mission Carriers personnel.

More training

Completing the initial training is just the beginning. The performance of each of Mission Carriers' 500-plus drivers is reviewed every three months to identify areas in need of additional training. Particular attention is paid to hours of service; defensive driving; accidents, spills, and incidents (root cause with corrective action); and changes in state and federal regulations.

Mandatory safety meetings are held monthly at each terminal, and make-up meetings are scheduled for those who are absent. Drivers can't qualify for the company's safety incentives if they miss the meetings. The meetings are open to dispatchers, as well as drivers.

One of the most effective (and impressive) safety incentives is the 500 Club and the diamond-studded ring that goes with it. Drivers qualify for the award once they complete five years without a chargeable accident or major incident.

“We started this award in 1996, and it's been a great success,” Kelly says. “Earning this award is a clear indication that the driver has made a major long-term commitment to safety. In addition, we see less than 2% turnover once a driver receives his ring. About 26% of our drivers have been with us two to five years, and another 26% have been here longer than five years.”

Modern fleet

An up-to-date tractor fleet also helps retain drivers. Systematic purchases of new tractors have proven to be the right combination to meet the needs for both replacement and expansion.

New tractors include Freightliner conventionals with 410-horsepower Mercedes Benz MBE4000 engines. Some International 9200i tractors also are going to the petroleum operations. The 9200i is specified with a 385-hp Cummins ISM engine and a 10-speed Eaton Fuller transmission.

Tractors are specified without cruise control, and the drivetrain is set for a maximum of 65 miles per hour. “We believe cruise control contributes to accidents,” Acton says.

On the chemical side, the standard trailer in the fleet is a single-compartment MC307 or DOT407 stainless steel tank with a 7,000-gallon capacity. The carrier also runs a large number of multicompartmented tanks to serve the specialty chemical market. This includes two; three; four; and five-hole trailers.

Mission Carriers has been buying new DOT406 aluminum petroleum trailers. Over the past year, the fleet ordered 65 new petroleum tanks, and about 30 are still in production.

Built by Polar Tank Trailer Inc, the low-profile trailers have four compartments and a 9,500-gallon capacity. Hardware includes Scully overfill protection, Emco Wheaton internal valves and API bottom-loading adapters, Dixon hose couplings, Allegheny Tees, Betts butterfly valves, and Seal-Fast couplers for the vapor recovery manifold.

Keeping the equipment in top running order falls on the maintenance team. Mission Carriers has 12 shops in its terminal system. The largest one in Houston employs 18 mechanics.

The shops handle preventive maintenance and routine vehicle service, including federal annual inspections and federally mandated tank testing and inspection. Warranty work and major tank repairs are contracted out.

“All of us at Mission Carriers work together as a team to ensure that we put the safest drivers and the safest vehicles on the road,” Kelly says. “It's an obligation we have had for our customers and for the motoring public since this company began operations almost 40 years ago. It's a commitment that will always be a part of this company.”

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.