Suttles stays safe with ‘top-down’ tenacity

Nov. 5, 2021
Division of Dana Transportation Companies snares NTTC's Heil Trophy through company-wide commitment to exceeding safety goals

A constant push to exceed safety goals helped Suttles Truck Leasing claim its first Heil Trophy in National Tank Truck Carriers’ 2020 North American Safety Contest.

A division of the Dana Transportation Companies, Suttles Truck Leasing earned the prestigious honor in the Harvison division, which includes tank truck carriers running more than 15 million miles annually. Suttles posted an accident frequency of .177 in the 18.5-31.5 million mile class of NTTC’s safety contest.

“I want to thank the NTTC and Heil Trailer International for this award,” says Ron Dana, president and founder of the Dana Companies. “We are truly honored to receive it. It is an even greater honor to be placed in such distinguished ranks as those of the past honorees, most of whom have been industry colleagues at one time or another, and all whom have made important safety contributions within our industry to be the best and safest transportation sector in the United States.

“Special thanks goes to our Suttles division and all those who work within this group to be ‘America’s Best’ and safest bulk chemical motor carrier in 2020. This includes drivers, tank wash personnel, dispatchers, terminal managers, and a dedicated safety team. Each of the Dana transportation companies have the same goals: Hard work, continuous improvement, full regulatory compliance, and exercising professional, safe, and courteous driving behavior at all times.”

Top down

Gene Patten, Dana Companies vice president of safety and compliance, adds: “We were honored to receive the ‘Grand’ award and thrilled to receive the Harvison Division Heil Safety Award. A few years ago, we recognized we had some work to do with regard to our overall safety performance. This required a ‘top-down’ commitment from everyone to work harder and smarter with a goal of everyone making it home safely.

“Year after year, I submitted the NTTC safety contest forms as a contributor. We did receive Merit, Honor, and Grand Awards in each Dana division over the past decade. For 2020, however, I realized our Suttles division was having an especially good year meeting its safety targets.

“But we don’t set our safety programs with a goal of receiving awards or recognition. We’ll continue to enter the annual NTTC safety competition in support of our industry peers. Receiving such recognition is great, but it takes a lot of hard work and dedicated professionals to bring about success and, more importantly, prevent injuries and accidents. We will continue working together as a team to meet and/or exceed our safety goals.”


James H. Suttles launched what evolved into Suttles Truck Leasing in 1972 in Greenville, S.C., when he bought his first truck and leased it on to a chemical tank truck carrier. Suttles moved his business to Demopolis, Ala., in 1979. Over more than two decades, the carrier grew to 450 tractors, with operations in 13 states and 19 terminal facilities.

Safety always was a key to the Suttles success story. Quarterly safety meetings were a staple of the company from the beginning, and included all management, drivers, mechanics, and tank wash personnel.

“All of our employees are important,” James Suttles said in 1998. “We couldn’t have achieved the success we have without them.”

Dana acquired Suttles in 1999. Ron Dana had followed a path very similar to that of James Suttles. Dana bought his first truck in 1970 and began hauling liquid bulk chemicals. Dana Transport Inc. was founded in 1972 in New Jersey.

Steady growth

Developing new business and accounts over the ensuing years helped Dana grow into an international business, with trucking operations in the continental United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada. The Suttles acquisition helped Dana Companies expand deeper into the South and along the Gulf Coast region.

Dana Companies, and its flagship fleet, Dana Transport, have grown steadily over the years through both acquisitions and internal expansion. Some of the acquisitions have continued to operate under their own names. In addition to Suttles, others include Liquid Transport Corporation, Diversified Transportation, and Afton Trucking.

Suttles currently runs 374 trucks with operations concentrated in 10  terminals, including its primary location in Demopolis. Systemwide, Dana has 60 terminal locations, with the most distant in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Total fleet equipment includes 1,400 trucks, approximately 10,000 cargo tank trailers, and upward of 20,000 tank containers.

“Like Dana Transport and Liquid Transport, our Suttles division handles its fair share of non-hazardous and hazardous products, including waste products,” Patten says. “We share the same customer base and for the most part use DOT 406, DOT 407, and DOT 412 cargo tanks, as well as MC 306, MC 307, and MC 312 specification cargo tank trailers. We also have a fleet of dry bulk equipment.

“Some customers have highly hazardous chemicals, and we use specialized, dedicated cargo tank trailers for those shipments. We also have a vast amount of bulk chemical ISO containers, along with terminals to support intermodal operations. In the past decade, there has been an emphasis on developing sites for rail-to-truck product transfers and on-site chemical storage.”

Safety program

As diverse as the operation has become, truck fleet activity is united under a uniform safety program that applies to drivers, mechanics, and tank cleaning personnel. The safety program starts the moment a new employee joins the company.

“At our terminals, we’re investing in safe work environments and enhancing our training programs for shop maintenance and tank wash personnel, which has helped us keep injuries to a minimum. Several facilities had zero OSHA reportable injuries in 2019 and again in 2020,” Patten says. 

“For our drivers, we formally opened a Driver Training Center in Charleston, S.C., and it’s been a huge success. Ron Dana had a vision for such a facility and Jon Cragg, our training director, led the charge. Tim Litchfield, a certified Smith System driver trainer from Liquid Transport, also conducts NAOP (New Associate Orientation Program) classes.

“Before our drivers haul a load for us, they’re sent to our NAOP class to learn our way of doing things, as well as reviewing the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations and ELD (electronic driver log) equipment. Seventy percent of the training focuses on Department of Transportation regulations, hazardous materials-handling requirements, driver logs, paperwork procedures, and product shipping names. We also cover defensive driving skills and talk a lot about distracted driving. All of our drivers go through Truckers Against Trafficking  (TAT) training. TAT is a non-profit organization that trains truck drivers to recognize and report instances of human trafficking. 

“One day is devoted to hands-on training with the equipment. At the start of a training class, each driver is issued a manual that was developed over the years by our safety team. Several chapters cover everything from company history, customer relations, our quality improvement program, and controlled substances policy to accident instructions, hours of service and ELD logging requirements, hazardous-materials handling and hazmat security guidelines.”

When NAOP graduates return to their domicile terminals, they are assigned a Dana-certified driver trainer. They work with the driver trainer. Finally, the driver, driver trainer, and terminal manager must sign off at the completion of the training before the new driver can handle loads on his own.

That’s just the beginning of the fleet safety program. Professionally developed quarterly safety meetings are mandatory and available for in-person meetings or through the company’s online training platform.

Safety investments

Ron Dana has made significant investments in vehicle safety technology. This includes PeopleNet ELDs, which are installed in all company-owned and owner-operated tractors. Nobody gets a pass. Further to this investment, every tractor has PeopleNet DVRs, including forward- and rear-facing cameras.

Dana’s Kevin “Skip” Parker oversees all aspects of the PeopleNet equipment, including installations and training as part of his responsibilities on the Dana Safety Team. “This ongoing investment in safety helps us keep track of driver compliance, driving behavior, and safety analytics, which can be used during performance reviews for discussions with individual drivers,” Patten says. “Near-miss events captured on the camera system are often used in our quarterly safety minutes. Having camera footage following an accident has helped us determine preventability nearly every time. They also help with negotiating insurance premiums.”

With the uniform safety program in place across the organization, the company was able to weather the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown disruptions with minimal impact. “While nearly everything was shut down, including our driver training center, we quickly developed in-person online Zoom meetings for new hires and the NAOP program for drivers,” Patten says. “Hands-on training was still provided, following all CDC protocols. Driver hiring continued throughout the year. We never missed a beat.”

Industry involvement

Safety isn’t just an internal effort. The Dana Companies safety team takes and active role in safety outreach programs promoted by various groups that are focused on transportation safety.

“Being a third party-certified American Chemistry Council Responsible Care Partner also helps us reach our safety goals each year,” Patten says. “We have guiding principles endorsed by senior management. Being in the Partner program is the keystone of our safety programs.”

Patten currently serves as the Partner leadership group chair and has been involved in several work groups since 2008, including chairing the Bulk Sector Workgroup. Dana Companies was awarded the ACC Partner Company of the Year in 2012, while Patten received the ACC Partner Employee of the Year recognition in 2012 and 2020.

Under Dana’s Jon Cragg and Parker, The Dana Companies have participated in many events under TRANSCAER (Transportation, Community Awareness, and Emergency Response), which also is a significant part of the American Chemistry Council.

“We’ve trained many first responders in cargo-tank anatomy and emergency response to chemical leaks, as part of annual TRANSCAER training events sponsored by Dow Chemical and its touring safety train,” Patten says. “We have a special training trailer that was inherited through various acquisitions. It was refurbished in 2010 and resembles MC 312, MC 307, DOT 407 specification cargo tank trailers. Dana has been recognized over eight consecutive years with the National Achievement Award.”

Patten makes it clear that Dana Companies will remain as focused on fleet safety in the future as it was during the past year. The company will continue pursuing safety excellence.

Charles Wilson was the editor of Bulk Transporter for 31 years.
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.