Dealer breaks down service truck safety: Following the basics will save lives, says Gerry
In this, the second installment in our service truck safety series, we examine what one commercial tire dealer does to ensure the well-being of his field techs.
Service truck safety is a matter of life and death to Pete Gerry, president of Pete's Tire Barns Inc. in Orange, Mass. "We drive about 2.5 million miles a year with 100 trucks," he says. That translates into 70 to 90 road service calls per day. "I have guys working on some of the busiest roads in the country. We know we're going to have accidents. The question is: how do we prepare for them?"
Service truck safety starts with the driver, Gerry says. He uses a one-driver-per-truck policy. "We have a mechanic who goes over each truck. We watch the clutch and brakes to see if we have an abuse situation." Drivers who violate the dealership's driving guidelines get demoted to a "junk truck" that is mechanically safe but has been stripped of luxury items. It's an effective deterrent, Gerry says.
Gerry's crew weighs each truck he buys -- tools included -- immediately after the transaction. Then they mark the truck's weight capacity with a sticker to prevent overload. "If we overload the truck, we get lots of brake problems."
Pete's Tire Barns paints each of its service trucks yellow. Each unit has a florescent bug shield with the dealership's name written across the front in day-glow colors. "We put a florescent plate on (the truck's) lift gate with our name on it. We also have white stripes on the front and back of all our trucks."
Gerry includes an orange, 80-watt strobe light on the back of each truck's rack bar above the brake lights. And a rotary beacon sits on top of each vehicle's strobe light. Each truck is equipped with portable lighting.
The 14-outlet company's service techs also wear reflective fabric on their uniforms. Gerry adopted the idea after watching garbage men work in low-light conditions. Each uniform sports reflective stripes sewn around the shoulders, arms and waist. "As they move, it attracts everyone's attention."
The cost is minimal, according to Gerry. "Uniform companies will put the reflective material on for little or no expense. You shouldn't have a service guy doing a night road call without reflectors on his uniform. They're a must."
Many service trucks get rear-ended while parked on the side of the road. To minimize collision damage, all of Gerry's trucks have an Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) safety bar underneath their lift gates that "hooks onto the end of the frame." The bar keeps truck bodies from folding forward and pinning drivers against the steering wheel.
Two of Gerry's service trucks were in serious accidents recently. In the first, a driver slammed into the back of a Pete's Tire mini-boom truck at 60 mph. "The lift gate had an ICC bar on it that stopped the car."
The other incident was similar. "Both of my guys went back to work the next day." Both also were wearing seat belts.
In accidents, the service truck is usually presumed to be at fault, Gerry says. That's why he hires an outside consultant to investigate accidents "so if we go to court, we have our affairs in order. You also have to keep maintenance records on each truck."
Stay or go?
Sooner or later, all service truck techs must decide whether to move a downed vehicle to a safer location or not. Unfortunately, the pressure from drivers to "stay put" has increased. "(Truckers) don't want to drive their trucks off the road anymore. In the old days, you had steel rims and could drive to the off-ramp. Now if you drive flat on an aluminum wheel, you'll ruin it."
Gerry tells his techs if they can't get the truck off the road they have two choices:
1. Call the state police. "Connecticut will actually shut down the lane so we can work." Massachusetts recently did the same thing for the dealership. "They'll park their cruisers out on the lane and redirect traffic."
2. Tow. "If there's no room to work, we'll tow." And letting clients know you reserve that option is important, he says.
"Techs need to know they don't have to put their lives in jeopardy. There isn't enough profit in that road job to get killed!"
Gerry also tells his drivers not to do ad-hoc repairs even if customers insist. "So many times the driver will tell you, 'Just put it together,' then they'll drive down the road and a wheel will fall off. Once you put something (unsafe) together, it's your company's fault."
Gerry makes each service truck tech read and sign off on a detailed checklist of driving and use procedures. Points include the following:
* checking oil, belts, hoses and coolant;
* reporting any broken glass, mirrors or dents right away;
* tying down loads with safety chains or straps;
* knowing how long it takes to stop a truck in relation to load weight;
* oiling and servicing trucks every 2,700 miles;
* shutting off the engine when not in use;
* squaring off at the end of an angled intersection so drivers can see both ways;
* making sure there's enough clearance when backing up; and,
* using beacon lights, flashers and strobes when pulling over to do road work.
Other procedures include letting the truck engine idle to prevent battery drainage if the lift gate will be used more than five times; scheduling trucks for mechanical repairs if problems are suspected; not carrying passengers since the company doesn't insure them; shifting within the truck transmission's power band; and not driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which results in immediate dismissal.
"Remember, this piece of equipment helps you make your living," Gerry tells drivers. "Please give it good care."
The best defense is a good offense
Pete's Tire Barns Inc. has been in business 34 years, yet has never been sued by an employee -- and that includes service truck techs. To continue that streak, and, more importantly, to ensure the safety of his road service personnel, company President Pete Gerry leaves no stone unturned. "We make sure they have airbags and wear seat belts so if they're in an accident, they don't sue."
Anticipating possible problems and working to prevent them is key, he says. Gerry sends a mechanic out with each new driver "to make sure the guy is capable of driving the truck. We're so happy to find a guy who can change tires, we sometimes forget to check if he can operate the vehicle."
Gerry makes sure that each driver knows his truck's physical dimensions and stopping distance. "A truck can't stop as fast as a car. And a 30,000-pound truck runs right over a 4,000-pound tin can! I tell my store managers at least once a week to talk to their drivers about it."
The dealer also makes his road service techs work from the right-hand side of their trucks. "My own service guys will tell me, 'While I'm loosening lug nuts, I'm looking into traffic and can get out of the way.' Well, that's impossible! It should be against the law for drivers to work from the left side."
Minimizing accidents not only staves off potential employee-driven lawsuits, but also helps when procuring insurance. "You absolutely have to stop claims on (service) vehicles or you won't get insurance. If you want to stay in the business, you'll address the issue."