‘Safety is not a department, it’s a way of life’

Discussing safety as a core value at the Truckload Carriers Association.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — A good record on safety is no accident. It takes a combination of commitment, planning, and action.

That was a central theme during a Truckload Carriers Association presentation by Wendell Erb, president and CEO of Erb International; Greer Woodruff, senior vice-president of safety, security, and driver personnel at J.B. Hunt; and Brian Fielkow, CEO at Jetco Delivery.

“Safety is not a department, it’s a way of life,” Fielkow told a lunchtime crowd.

Woodruff said a steller safety record at J.B. Hunt only came after the company stopped isolating safety as a separate concern within the organization, and started making the topic relevant to every department and every interaction.

Woodruff assigned employees special training using the Smith System — one of many safety training methods available for fleets — and used the ideas taught as a jumping off point to brainstorm ways every employee could be accountable for safety.

“That became a common language that everyone could talk about. Everyone could communicate,” he said.

Although safety on the road often starts with things like the truck, driving techniques, and hours of service, ideas for improved safety measures came from more than just dispatch, technicians, and drivers. Woodruff says everyone was held accountable — from the top down.

Solutions involved ensuring drivers were paid on time. Mistakes were handled quickly and with communication at every step of the way. It was important to keeping drivers less-stressed and distraction-free while they were on the road, proving that even the payroll department had a role to play in the new safety initiatives.

Not everyone was on board with the new training. Woodruff said two members of his executive team were skeptical about the benefit of new safety initiatives. After speaking with both, one became passionate about the cause, while the other left the organization. Woodruff emphasizes both were good outcomes.

Erb agrees that keeping drivers, other staff, or even business shouldn’t come at the cost of fleet safety. “There is only one way to do things, and that’s the safe way. There’s times when freight just needs to be hauled by someone else,” he said.

Woodruff adds that the savings of a better safety record are not just financial. Having knocked on more than one door of someone who has lost a loved one in a collision, he knows there is a human and emotional cost, too.

“We rear-ended a school bus down in Louisiana and it took the life of a kindergarten girl,” he said. “We went down to the school cafeteria and met with the family, and when you stand in a school cafeteria and you meet with the family of the children that were on that bus, and the family member of the girl that died in the audience, I’m telling you, it’ll get a commitment [to safety].”

After that collision in 2011, Woodruff said he was able to get a funding commitment to have all new vehicles come with collision warning systems. J.B. Hunt now has the technology on 93% of its trucks, and has seen a 60% reduction in collisions on trucks with the system versus trucks without it.

“I believe the forward collision mitigation is the best next step for our company to go to,” Erb added.

Erb is a fan of new technology like forward-facing and interior-facing cameras and other items that add to safety on the road.

Even automated transmissions are helping to improve safety, allowing drivers to focus less on the business of shifting and more on the other things they should be paying attention to on the road, he said.

For companies that don’t want to make the capital investments in new technology, there are simple things that can be done to improve safety.

Engaging sales teams to help pick partners that have safety in mind, and educating customers on safety are two important steps to help reduce the stress on dispatchers and drivers and can make a difference in how fleets conduct business, Woodruff said.

In some cases, however, funding safety improvements have to be considered without an return on investment in mind.

“Ethically,” says Woodruff, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.