What’s in Print

Expert panel discusses importance of tank carrier departments working together to keep drivers, equipment on the road

DAVID Edmondson, vice president of safety at J&M Tank Lines, hosted a safety and maintenance panel discussion called “Maintenance’s Role in Fostering a Safety Culture” during the National Tank Truck Carriers’ Tank Truck Week 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The expert panel included trucking industry veteran Billy Lollar, the vice president of maintenance at J&M; John Hamel, president and CEO of J&S Transport, a fuel hauler based in the New England area for more than 25 years; Jeff Allen, the maintenance director at Miller Transporters—which Heniff Transportation acquired last summer—and Ken Shafer, a manager at Superior Carriers who spent six years as the company’s director of maintenance and tank cleaning.

David Edmondson with J&M Tank Lines [left], Ken Shafer with Superior Carriers [center], and Jeff Allen with Miller Transporters

They discussed the importance of maintenance and safety departments working together, results from the most recent American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) study on the cost of trucking, challenges associated with balancing safety and budget concerns, and the latest safety technology, among other topics.

Questions and answers are edited for length and clarity.

Edmondson: What are your thoughts on the importance of maintenance and safety departments working together?

Lollar: “In my opinion they’re one and the same. We depend on the safety department daily to help us regulate everything in the shop, and our No. 1 goal in our business is to do it safely and get it delivered safely, and that falls on the maintenance shop as well, as far as doing everything correctly—providing them with the correct tools, jack stands, lifts, harnesses or whatever they need. It’s up to us as mangers of the company to make sure these people get home every day to their families.”

Hamel: “We believe that the two departments need to work hand-in-hand. Safety departments need to ensure that drivers not only follow policies and procedures while driving or doing specific job functions, but they also need to be sure that there’s a direct line of communication between drivers and mechanics. So, part of our new driver orientation process is a meeting with the director of maintenance and our mechanics, and we make sure that each and every day during shift change that the mechanics are actually available to the drivers. Now, the drivers aren’t allowed to wander freely through the shops, of course, for safety reasons, but they are available for any small item that may come up during a driver’s pre or post trip.”

Allen: “It’s important for the maintenance department to reinforce the safety policies that are in place out there, and constantly be looking for areas for improvement. It’s critical to be on the same page as the safety department, and not be out there making negative comments on the shop floor about some policy or some aspect of safety because that potentially undermines all aspects of it, and we all agree with 99% of it. I’ll curse the safety department with the best of them a lot of times, but in the end we strive to work together and adopt policies that make sense, and that we can all enforce without pushback from any other area.”

Shafer: “Safety’s everybody’s involvement from top to bottom. We want everybody to go home as safe as they were when they showed up that morning, no matter if it’s late pickups or deliveries, everybody’s got to be safe in everything they do. We’ve got to work hand-in-hand. We want to make sure the mechanics are safe, the tank cleaners are safe, and we need the safety department to help and monitor some of that, see what we’re doing, and make sure we’ve got the policies in place, and the OSHA inspections. So we definitely have to be hand-in-hand in everything we do with the drivers.”

Edmondson: ATRI just released its annual analysis on operational costs in trucking. In that study, after saying vehicle miles traveled are down 13.6% from 2016 to 2017, they say maintenance costs rose about 4 cents per mile. Where are you seeing this? What is the age of your trailer fleet? ATRI’s study said the average age of a tank was 17 years, compared to 6½ years for a flatbed or van trailer. Does that factor into your costs?

Shafer: “We’re seeing increases in labor rates at outside shops. Emissions packages are costly, with a lot more sensors having to be looked at, and tire prices are going up. One thing with us and tanks, we always have a pitting problem. It doesn’t matter how many miles you’re going to run on those, if pits are in the tank, you have to get them fixed. We have HM-183 inspections every year, so there’s added cost we don’t see in van.”

Allen: “Talking about Miller’s fleet, it definitely has increased in age over the last 10 years. At one time we were probably averaging 13-14 years, and we’re probably upward of 17-18, maybe even 19 now. It’s not that we’re not buying equipment, we just never sell anything, so naturally the average age increases. We’ve looked at some numbers before, and there’s no doubt with the age of equipment that the older it is, on average, the more you’re going to spend on it. But after that 10-year mark, it pretty much levels off, where there’s not a big difference between a 10-year-old trailer and a 30-year-old trailer, once you move past that initial point where you’ve refurbished a lot of components.”

Billy Lollar with J&M Tank Lines[left] and John Hamel with J&S Transport

Hamel: “We see an increase in our maintenance costs with tires, first and foremost and … we do see much more downtime with emissions, whether it’s sensors or heater lines or injector pumps or what have you. So we do see a substantial increase in maintenance costs due to emissions. But when I started breaking it down and looking at the numbers, we are about 6 cents per mile in our tire costs above the respondents in the ATRI study. But then looking at it, only 4.9% of the respondents to that study carry loads over 80,000 pounds, and in the northeast we’re running an average load of 103,000, so that significantly increases your tire wear. … In our regular maintenance costs, we saw about a 3-cent per mile average higher than the respondents from ATRI, but then we balance that all out with the efficiency and uptime of our fleet. We try to get an average uptime of about 20 hours per day on the fleet, so we like to think the efficiency of the operations is offsetting our slightly higher maintenance costs on average. And with our trailers, the average trailer years is about 7½ years.”

Lollar: “One of the things a little bit different that I see in the industry, because we do most of our stuff in-house as much as we can, is trying to find that technician who can make the repair correctly the first time. Because of some of the training issues, we’ll have some repetitive repairs, which contributes to the cost. And one of the other things, with the soft used truck market in 16-17, is we ran our trucks a year or two longer than we probably wanted to, so with that we missed that trade cycle where we would inject the new truck in, which also would have helped us keep our maintenance costs down.”

Edmondson: On one hand, you have executives jumping up and down saying “We’ve got to cut costs,” and maintenance is always the biggest cost center in any company, and on the other hand you have a driver saying “We’ve got to get this fixed. We can’t be running up and down the road like this.” How do you balance that, and how do you balance your budget and still maintain safety?

Lollar: “The owner of our company wants things done the right way, and I have the motto ‘If you do right, right will follow.’ So we try to do basic things in the shop as far as that goes, and if you do everything to try to get it right the first time, the expenses usually fall in line. Fortunately, my CEO and my CFO are easy to work with. Now, don’t get me wrong, if my maintenance gets up, somebody’s wanting to know something about it, but usually we’ve got our finger on the pulse so it’s easy to explain what’s going on.”

Allen: “As far as the balancing act, there are some things that are pretty straight forward. If safety or anyone else becomes aware of a problem where we can point to a regulation and say, ‘We’re doing this wrong or we’re not meeting this,’ then you fix it, without question. You spend the money, whatever it takes. For the gray-area stuff, I work well with our safety department, our whole maintenance department does, so if it’s something that can be easily resolved through additional training or something like that, we sit down and try to come up with a reasonable solution everybody can agree on and put out there. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy, but I truly believe if you instill that safety culture, the potential for those high-profile incidents that come to light decreases, and you don’t have as many eyes on it saying, ‘Don’t spend that money.’”

Shafer: “I agree safety comes first when you’re working on equipment or anything in the shop. After that, we try to do the basics—the quality PMs (preventative maintenance), doing everything on time, keeping tires aired up and everything working. Everything comes hand-in-hand after that. Drivers buy into it, they use the equipment properly and they’re trained on it. We try to train our mechanics to keep most of our work in house, so we don’t have to send it out, and that cuts our costs down and makes our uptime a lot better.”

Edmondson: John, being a CEO, how do you view this when you’re talking to your maintenance guy, as far as keeping costs in line with safety.

Hamel: “We are a smaller carrier, so the size of our entire fleet is perhaps the size of one of your terminals, and a lot of our job functions, because we are a smaller carrier, put a high emphasis on safety. So there are certain job functions that overlap. So our safety director also handles operations, and in the shop our maintenance director … is sure that he buys his parts at the absolute best price he possibly can, so he’s consistently got the company’s back with parts pricing. It’s amazing sometimes when I walk out into the shop and get to listen to him haggle with vendors over $2 here and there. That’s a huge part of how you keep your maintenance costs down. In our company, safety absolutely takes priority, so dispatch would never have a sideways word to say to the maintenance department because they’re putting a truck out of service, and maintenance is consistently talking to operations and dispatch on a daily basis, and then you’ve got driver buy-in. You spend a lot of money on the equipment, the tractor-trailer, the equipment that’s utilized to do the job, so part of our training is getting the drivers to understand that without that equipment, and that equipment working properly, it’s going to prohibit them from doing their job safely and it’s going to cost the company money, so we try to control all of that in one big basket.”

Edmondson: With all the new safety technology that’s available today, and all the stuff that’s coming down the pipe, what is the cool new thing that you’d want to have for your fleet?

Shafer: “We’re running the Bendix Fusion. It’s a cool little system the way it helps stop a truck on a dime. Version 2 is coming out that will slow it down from 50 (mph) to zero stop. They’re working on Intellipark, where if the truck gets too far left or right, it will bring it to a stop and then set the parking brakes. Or if you get out of the truck, the parking brakes will set if it’s in neutral to keep it from rolling away and running off on its own.”

Allen: “I really don’t have one thing. We’ve got a lot of the safety stuff that we already spec, with lane departure and collision avoidance and all that. I say bring it all on. It’s job security. It’s going to start breaking, right, and we’ve got to fix it.”

Hamel: “We spec our tractors already with the collision mitigation and smart cruise and lane-departure warnings. Those are already there, so what we’d like to move to has been out for a while. We have not yet incorporated the cameras into the trucks, so we’re hoping in 2019 to incorporate cameras. As far as the new cool thing I’d like to see, this really isn’t on the truck side. Being strictly a fuel carrier, what I would like to see for fuel fleets is the ability for a driver to pull into a gas station or any facility and get underground storage end readings. A lot of states are going to completely sealed units on the underground storage tanks, and it’s probably been about two years now, and we see it really affecting deliveries in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, where a tank can operate on positive or negative pressure in the tank, and you’ve got a driver who sticks an underground storage tank and comes up with 18 inches on the gauge stick, yet there’s only 7 inches in the ground. Or it could be the opposite, where you’ve got 40 inches of fuel in the ground and the driver sticks the tank, and your deliveries are out of whack and you have no idea what you’re delivering, what the volume capacity is, and no one drops over 90% capacity. So stick readings in underground storage tanks are going to be completely obsolete very soon. So particularly for night drivers who don’t have the ability to go into a convenience store or facility and get a reading from the underground storage tanks, I’d really like to see the technology developed so a driver can get that fuel reading.”

Lollar: “We pretty much have been running the Bendix Wingman Fusion. We married up with Bendix I guess in ’13, when things started coming out, and as they’ve graduated up from the Bendix Wingman to the Fusion, we have partnered with them, so that’s pretty neat. We have the cameras. We haven’t turned them on the drivers yet. That’s something that we have been discussing. But as far as me being in the maintenance side of it, I’m ready for tire inflation on the tractors. We get it on the trailers, but as far as the tractors, the military has it, so I’m waiting on the first person to do that (in trucking).”

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