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Grammer’s Ellis doing it right

Jan. 8, 2021
Chemical transporter turns to its two-time NTTC driver of the year finalist to handle the most dangerous products and situations

Grammer Logistics driver James Ellis primarily hauls anhydrous ammonia, which is one of the most dangerous liquid chemicals to transport.

According to the National Agricultural Safety Database (NASD), exposure to anhydrous ammonia—typically utilized as a fertilizer on farms—as a liquid or gas is highly toxic to all body tissue, but especially the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, causing dehydration, cell destruction and severe chemical burns, and victims exposed to even small amounts of ammonia require immediate treatment to avoid permanent injury or death.

Yet Ellis, 54, sought out this job, and does it so well he trains Grammer drivers on handling the product as one of the Columbus, Indiana-headquartered bulk transporter’s lead drivers. He’s also their go-to guy for any hairy situations in his area, including rollovers, pump-outs and other incidents involving hazardous chemicals.

“There’s only one way to deal with anhydrous ammonia, and that’s the right way,” Ellis said. “And it’s the same every day. There are no shortcuts.”

Ellis heads to work at Grammer’s Dunn, North Carolina terminal with that same high-level attention to detail and dedication to safety every day, which is why he’s a two-time finalist for the National Tank Truck Carriers’ Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year award, and a 2018 Master Truck Driver with the Indiana Motor Truck Association.

“James is one of those drivers who’s a true professional,” said George Gerth, Grammer’s vice president of safety and driver recruiting. “Anything you ask him to do, he’s there. If another driver has an issue, he’ll help.

“He’s just an all-around pro driver in his demeanor, work ethic and driving ability.”

Ellis is one of eight 2019-20 finalists revealed in January 2020. NTTC intended to name a winner last May at its 75th annual conference, but that was cancelled due to the coronavirus, leading the association to suspend the program and instead crown one of the current candidates at the 2021 Annual Conference May 2-4 in San Diego, California.

“I really want to bring that home to (retired Grammer founder Charles) ‘Shorty’ Whittington and his son John (Whittington, vice president of legislative affairs),” Ellis said.

Shifting gears

Ellis didn’t always haul hazardous chemicals.

He spent 23 years with Morganite, a former subsidiary of Morgan Crucible (now Morgan Advanced Materials), before being laid off as the company wound down operations and eventually closed its Dunn, North Carolina plant in 2009, leaving Ellis to look for a new career. His older brother, Chuck Ellis, a life-long commercial driver, convinced him to try trucking, and after spending most of his working life indoors in manufacturing, he decided he was ready to see some sights.

“He mentored me into driving trucks,” Ellis said of his brother, who tragically died of cancer four years ago at the age of 59. “He told me it was one career I could get into at my age that I’d always have a career in.”

Ellis enrolled at Johnston Community College’s North Carolina Truck Driver Training School, where he finished third in a class of 37 drivers, and then went to work for Tidewater Transit, where he gained his initial experience with hazmat, and helped Tidewater establish its first anhydrous ammonia-hauling business.

“I’m always challenging myself, so I wanted to get into something that was the most challenging in truck driving, and that’s why I went with tankers and hazmat,” Ellis said.

He joined Grammer in April 2011 and surpassed 1 million safe miles with the company in December 2019. Ellis primarily hauls anhydrous ammonia on night shifts but also transports nitric acid and butane while serving as a driver trainer, mentor and, in some cases, trusted go-between for drivers and management. Grammer has a 60-40 mix of 450 company and owner-operator drivers running 650 trailers.

“I only wish I could have been at Grammer 20 years earlier,” Ellis said. “Grammer Logistics is a phenomenal company. They treat everyone like family. Shorty Whittington and his son, John Whittington, are over the top.

“They are people everyone would enjoy working with.”

No easy tasks

Ellis primarily works with MC 331 cargo tanks made by Mississippi Tank Company and newer-model, slip-seat Peterbilt tractors. A typical day might include picking up a load in Augusta, Georgia, and hauling it to Dunn, then taking another load from Dunn to Aurora, North Carolina for key customer Nutrien.

He handles all product offloading, which for him means suiting up in personal protective equipment (PPE), including respirator, chemical suit and gloves for 1-1½ hours at a time. “It is very challenging, Ellis said. “There are no short cuts in unloading. If you don’t have your PPE gear on and you have a leak or release, you end up in a body bag.

“You don’t get a second chance with this stuff.”

As challenging as it is to deal with anhydrous ammonia, Ellis maintains driving a commercial vehicle isn’t easier. The potential for disaster is present every time a tank truck driver climbs into the cab, so every shift includes 14 hours of intense concentration as they stay on high alert for distracted drivers and preoccupied pedestrians, while executing everyday driving skills, like lane changes and mergers, that are more complex behind the wheel of a 80,000-pound vehicle.

“Driving a truck is a challenge every day,” he said. “You’ve got to be 100% aware of what you’re doing, and everything around you. While you’re in that truck, it’s nothing like being in an automobile. You have got to know what’s going on.

“The major thing is you’ve always got to leave yourself a way out.”

In 2020, truckers also must navigate streets filled with protestors while staying safe during a global pandemic, which is easier said than done. Ellis and his wife quarantined for 15 days earlier this year after he came in contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, both their tests were negative.

Considering the challenges, Ellis says the country’s renewed appreciation for truckers, who’ve put themselves in harm’s way to keep shelves stocked during a health crisis, still doesn’t go far enough. He’d like to see them mentioned in the same breath as more revered frontline workers like doctors and nurses.

But he takes comfort knowing his efforts are fully appreciated by two of the most important people in his life: Sons James Ellis Jr., 31, and Johnathan Ellis, 29. Both left careers in other fields to work with their father at Grammer.

“I had the opportunity to train both of my sons to haul some of the deadliest chemicals on the interstate, and now … I see them every day,” he said. “And boy what it does to my heart to know my sons followed in my footsteps, not only in the trucking industry but with the same company. It’s heartwarming.”

Industry ambassador

Ellis is the third Grammer driver named a tank truck driver of the year finalist. Don McGarity was a finalist in 2017-18 and Brian “Butch” Jennings made the top eight in 2016-17, giving Grammer a finalist in four straight years.

Gerth is hoping the fourth time is the charm.

“There are so many good drivers out there who have been nominated, so for him even to be in the top eight is an honor in itself,” Gerth said. “But I’m really hoping that, at some point in time, one of Grammer’s drivers brings home the award.”

If he wins, Ellis—who’s also up for American Trucking Association’s 2020-21 America’s Road Team—says he’ll make safety and education top priorities.

Grammer runs tractors with front and side cameras Ellis insists boast multiple benefits for carriers, drivers and the motoring public, which is why he’s a proponent of legislation that would make cameras mandatory for all commercial vehicles. Along with promoting safety by keeping an unblinking eye on truckers and the passenger vehicles around them, cameras also help catch criminals and save innocent lives, he said.

As for education, Ellis points out that people know to stop for a school bus with red lights flashing but think its fine to zip around a truck at a railroad crossing, where tankers are required to pause. And they frequently fail to realize a 40-ton tractor-trailer takes longer to stop than a 2-ton SUV. In fact, he maintained, the general public knows very little about the commercial vehicles with which they share the road every day.

Ellis also wants people to know they don’t have to drive a truck to contribute to one of the country’s most important industries. Trucking also involves dispatchers, safety personnel, technicians, recruiters, IT experts and more.

“I want everyone to understand what would happen in the United States if we didn’t have truck drivers,” Ellis said. “A lot of people don’t even realize why we have trucks out here. They see us but they don’t understand that we carry food for their tables, gas for their cars and for busses—so they can go back and forth to work and their kids can go to school—assist the military with fuel, and keep supply chains intact.

“If you stop and think about everything that comes to your house, and just about everything you do, at the end of the day, there’s a truck driver who had something to do with it.”

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.