Small steps bring big safety trophy for plastics hauler A&R Transport

June 1, 2005
GREAT things are not done by impulse, but by small things brought together. This statement posted in the reception area at the A&R Transport Inc headquarters

“GREAT things are not done by impulse, but by small things brought together.”

This statement posted in the reception area at the A&R Transport Inc headquarters offices in Morris, Illinois, could easily have been written to describe the approach used to build the tank truck carrier's award-winning safety program. The strategy is clearly evident throughout the operation.

A&R Transport's safety program has been recognized with a multitude of awards over the years. The latest accolade was the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) Outstanding Performance Trophy, which was presented at the association's annual meeting in May. The carrier won the award with a 2004 frequency of just .169 Department-of-Transportation-reportable accidents per million miles and a lost-time injury rate of 0.79.

“This award was a long time in coming, and we've been working hard to achieve the goal of earning this trophy for close to 20 years,” says Michael Tallaksen, A&R Transport vice-president of safety and NTTC's 2004 Safety Director of the Year. “We built the program a step at a time, and we continue to fine-tune it. It was an honor to be this year's winner. This was a win for everyone who works at this company, especially the drivers, mechanics, and tank washers.

“One reason we have a winning safety program is that we have the commitment of our owner and top management. James E Bedeker, A&R Transport chief executive officer, gives me the resources to do what I think is necessary to keep people safe. It's part of management's overall belief in our people.”

A&R Transport was selected for its first Outstanding Performance Trophy from a group of 13 tank truck carriers that had won their mileage categories. Seventy-three carriers entered the contest, and they ran a combined total of 2.2 billion miles. The aggregate rate for all of these carriers was 0.566 DOT-reportable accidents per million miles.

Bedeker says he believes the big push for the Outstanding Performance Trophy started three years ago. “We changed the way we conduct our safety meetings, and we challenged our drivers to step up to the responsibility of being safety leaders,” he says. “We've seen steady improvement since then.”

A&R Transport put together a winning safety program despite being in the second highest mileage category (A&R Transport was the Grand Award winner in the 50-90-million-mile category) of the NTTC contest. The carrier runs what is essentially an irregular-route operation, providing both domestic and international service to shippers of plastic pellets and powders.

“Our fleet runs across North America, and our drivers have to deal with some of the most difficult operating conditions,” says Bedeker. “It's rough on the road today. Traffic congestion is terrible, and it's getting worse. Truck drivers must contend with motorists who are distracted by cell phones and other things. Bulk trucks are a constant target for roadside inspections by enforcement officials.

“Our drivers overcome the challenges because they are the best in the industry, and we give them the best training, support, and equipment we can. They do an incredible job. Their dedication and professionalism have been key factors in the success of this company.”

Some of the carrier's 750 drivers spend as much as two weeks at a stretch on the road. However, seven-day trips are more typical. “We don't keep them out as long as we used to,” Bedeker says. “In fact, we've got some drivers who are home at the end of each day. The long trips generally go to drivers who request them.”

Shipment levels

While shipments are down slightly this year, the drivers still have plenty to do, serving the plastics shippers that account for the core of the A&R Transport customer base. Plastics shipments industry-wide were generally flat during the first quarter of 2005, according to data compiled by the American Plastics Council.

“We've seen some leveling of shipments in comparison with 2004,” says Paul Sweeden, A&R Transport president. “Shipment levels are growing at a slower pace, which gives us better control. There's still plenty of work for our drivers.

“We remain very optimistic about the future of plastics hauling in North America, whether the product is made in the region or imported from other parts of the world. We're certainly handling more shipments of imported plastics. Most of the plastics shipments in North America are being moved in bulk — either pneumatic trailer or railcar — because that's what the customers want.”

A&R Transport serves those customers with a diverse fleet that includes 570 company tractors, 200 owner-operator tractors, 1,100 trailers (including 42 reefers), and 925 containers designed specifically for plastics. Equipment is spread across a network of 24 primary terminals, plus a handful of satellite locations, in California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Alabama, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio.

Intermodal service is a big part of the operation. Heil Drytainers account for 130 of the fleet's containers and are used for overseas plastics shipments to and from Europe. The largest intermodal activity, though, is truck/rail transfer.

Transloading activity

A&R Transport offers transloading from 14 locations in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The carrier also has warehouse and packaging sites in Illinois, California, Mississippi, and Massachusetts.

The largest location for transloading and warehousing is in Morris, a 66-acre complex with a 300,000-sq-ft warehouse and 340 car spots on 16 sections of track. The second largest facility in the A&R Transport system — with a 272,000-sq-ft warehouse — is in San Bernardino, California.

“Our transloading and warehousing operations are growing at a solid rate,” Sweeden says. “For instance, our railcar throughput at the Morris location is around 3,500 a year, and we expect activity to grow by approximately 20% in 2005.”

Keeping track of all the aspects of the varied operation can be a challenge. That's one reason A&R Transport chose TMW Suite fleet management software. In addition, most of the terminals and transload locations are linked through a dedicated communication network. Drivers and dispatchers communicate directly through Qualcomm's satellite tracking and communication system.

Driver skills

Good communication ability ranks high on the list of skills sought when new drivers are hired. A&R Transport also looks for drivers with a stable work history and a good safety record. Applicants must be at least 25 years old and have a minimum of three years over-the-road truck driving experience to be hired as a driver.

“It's absolutely important to hire the right people,” Tallaksen says. “That's where our safety program begins, and it's where driver retention starts. Eighty percent of hiring is gut instinct. During the interview, you get a feel for the ability of a person to fit into your operation.

“It takes just five to 10 minutes to determine whether someone will fit our operation. All we have to do is listen to what the driver is saying. In most cases, an applicant will talk himself out of a job. We also use the interview to give the driver an accurate picture of the job requirements. We make sure that we tell the truth about the job.

“We want experienced drivers in our operation. We don't take a lot of people straight out of the truck driving schools because they just don't have enough experience. To get the people we want, we pay them above the industry average, and we also offer retention bonuses.”

Despite an aggressive screening process, A&R Transport continues to find most of the drivers it needs. “We've been successful in our hiring efforts, and we can still be very selective,” Sweeden says. “Because we haul primarily non-hazardous cargoes, we're probably getting some drivers who don't want to go through the hassle of the federal background checks that are now required with hazmat endorsements. Other key factors that help in driver recruiting are good pay, premium equipment, and appropriate training.”

During the past year, the average driver wage at A&R Transport was $62,000. Any driver employed at A&R Transport for at least one year can qualify for that pay, according to Sweeden. The keys are to take the loads that are available, keep up with logs and other paperwork, and operate safely.

On the equipment side, drivers know that they will be assigned to some of the best-maintained tractors and trailers in the industry. The carrier has an active tractor-renewal program that combines the use of glider kits and new vehicle purchases.

A&R Transport mechanics put together 120 glider kits over the past three years. In addition, the company is on a purchasing program that calls for 100 new tractor purchases a year for the next three years. The carrier also takes delivery on two new dry bulk trailers a month, a program that will continue for the next couple of years.

“We still have some excess capacity in our fleet, but we're trying to get back to a five-year cycle for our tractors,” Sweeden says.

The newest tractors are Peterbilt Model 379 conventionals with 475-horsepower Caterpillar C15 engines, Eaton Fuller 13-speed transmissions, and Peterbilt's Flex Air suspension. Safety equipment includes Eaton's Vorad collision avoidance system. Tractors are specified with a 63-inch flat-roof Unibilt sleeper.

To be assigned to one of these tractors, new hires must complete a training program that includes two weeks of instruction at their home terminal and one week at A&R Transport's main office in Morris. They spend 90 days making short runs as they learn the job and how A&R Transport operates.

Classroom and hands-on instruction cover a range of subjects, including DOT regulations, hours of service and logbooks, equipment operation, safe climbing procedures, and seatbelt use. New hires also hear about the importance of acting like a professional.

“Driver image is an industry-wide issue,” Sweeden says. “In my opinion, the CB radio was the beginning of the problem. The things drivers allegedly said over the radio helped destroy the knights-of-the-road image. Bad driving habits and poor personal appearance are additional problems.

“We talk to our drivers about the need to act in a professional manner. We have a dress code that calls for a clean shirt and trousers, neat hair, and a clean shave. Most of our terminals have showers for the drivers and laundry facilities.”

Safety is a constant theme throughout the initial training process, and that goes for all new hires, not just drivers. For instance, mechanics and tank cleaners receive comprehensive instruction and practice in confined-space-entry procedures and the use of personal protective equipment.

“Too many people have died due to carelessness in our industry,” Tallaksen says. “We don't want anybody in this company to get hurt. It takes just a few minutes to do something safely, and we do everything we can to communicate that it's worth taking the time.”

Responsibility for getting out the safety message falls on Tallaksen and a three-person corporate safety team. He points out, though, that the safety team actually includes all of the terminal managers. They are the managers who have the most day-to-day contact with drivers, mechanics, and wash rack workers.

Weekly tailgate meetings at each terminal are conducted by the terminal managers to reinforce the initial safety training. A&R Transport also conducts larger, more formal monthly safety meetings. The end of the year brings a special meeting with awards and a banquet.

Drivers and their spouses are taken to a resort or casino for the meeting, which becomes an opportunity for a weekend vacation. Awards are a big part of the program, and they include plaques, trophies, rings, and even monetary awards. Terminals compete with each other for some of the awards, an element of the contest that gets high marks from the drivers. A&R Transport's management team is on hand to personally congratulate every award winner.

The highlight of each annual meeting is the presentation of two key awards: Driver of the Year and Employee of the Year. Laurel Gillan, based at the Joliet, Illinois, terminal was named Driver of the Year in 2004. He was selected from among drivers who had been named Driver of the Quarter over the course of the year. John Houchens, a California dispatcher, was named Employee of the Year in 2004.

“That annual award meeting was one of the improvements we made in our safety program over the last three years, and it has had a big impact,” Bedeker says. “We use it as a way to communicate more directly with the drivers. As a company grows, it's harder to stay in touch with every driver. This has given us a way to regain some of that contact. We've seen a distinct improvement in safety and our relationship with all personnel.”