'It's scary out there:' Proper positioning is just the start when it comes to service truck safety

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'It's scary out there:' Proper positioning is just the start when it comes to service truck safety

John Zidlick, manager of Charleston Tire Service Inc. in Charleston, S.C., knows service truck work can be dangerous. So do his employees, because he hammers the point home on a weekly basis during company safety meetings.

"We open up the floor for discussion," Zidlick says. "We'll either have a solution or we'll find one."

In the past, Zidlick made safety checklists for his service truck techs to review. They covered topics like:

* general truck inspections,

* tire tool and equipment checks,

* air pressure checks,

* material handling sheets ("one for every chemical on the truck"),

* inflation cage usage.

Zidlick won't hire a road service tech off the street who doesn't have at least five years of in-the-field experience. Current employees "can move up to service trucks within three to five years." The idea, he says, is to ensure operator competency and, more importantly, personal safety. "It's common sense."

On-the-spot safety

Some safety nuances of service truck work are not always obvious, according to service truck manufacturers. There are several things to keep in mind, including the following:

Truck positioning. Evaluate the situation before starting any job and then position your truck accordingly.

Make sure your service truck isn't going anywhere. Several years ago, a driver who ran a service truck for one of Stellar Industries Inc.'s clients absentmindedly left his vehicle's automatic transmission in drive upon exiting the unit, says Tom Formanek, Stellar sales manager. The truck was heavy enough that it sat in an idle position -- until the operator turned on its air compressor. "The majority of service truck equipment runs off the truck engine itself," Formanek says. The resulting spike in rpms sent the truck crashing through a closed garage door. "There's always a chance your automatic transmission can jump out of gear."

Stellar installs a device in service trucks that won't let operators start up equipment unless they properly apply the vehicle's parking brake.

Ensuring that your vehicle stays in place also is important, says Rick Pearson of Fleet Equipment Corp. Fleet has designed a steering restraint device that locks into a tractor's steering wheel spokes with a key-like "The Club" of TV infomercial fame. It comes with a fiberglass staff attached to an orange safety flag that alerts other people to the tech's presence.

Lighting. The typical service truck package includes a single rotating beacon or strobe light, according to Keith Smith, general manager of Piedmont Service Trucks. "Twenty-five to 30% of customers will go that extra step and order more lights."

Sales of LED-style lights have risen sharply over the past several years, says Stellar's Formanek. "They're much brighter than standard lights. Halogens also are popular."

Tire lifting. "Tire hands are the safest way to handle OTR tires," says Smith. "You aren't dealing with chains, slings and other devices."

If tire hands aren't available, he recommends using four-way chains, i.e., tire slings. "A lot of people still use a single chain wrapped around the diameter of a tire. There's nothing to keep the tire from slipping out and falling." The biggest drawback to four-way chains is that they take longer to set up, but the added security, he says, is worth it.

Always use certified lifting chains when hoisting tires overhead. "You just can't go to the hardware store, buy 20 feet of chain and put two hooks on it."

Smith estimates that up to 90% of tire service chains in use are not rated to handle overhead lifting. "You can order (overhead-rated) chains through any specialty hardware supplier."

Don't use bead hooks to lift heavy tires, says Formanek. With bead hooks, "you're grabbing all of that weight on the side bead. Say you're working with a 7,000-pound tire; the hook is in an eight- to 10-inch area. You're putting all of that stress on a small section," which can lead to bead seat area ruptures.

Air compressors and jacks. Make sure your air compressor is working at the proper pressure level, says Mark Zipse, market and product manager for Iowa Mold Tooling Co. Also drain all moisture and air from your air reserve tank at the end of each job. "If rust builds up in the tank it can cause an explosion."

Zipse reports one incident in which an overhead air tank exploded and nearly blew off the cab of a service truck. Another time, a clogged air tank near the rear of a service truck exploded during inflation; the resulting force knocked a tech 10 feet through the air -- even though he had been standing 15 feet away from the unit at the time! "It was pure air volume that did the damage in both cases," he says.

Always use jack stands in conjunction with jacks, "no matter what you're working with. It's something the dealer should tell his tech to do and it's something the tech should take time to do. We'd save more lives if everybody did it."

Basic safety equipment. Not using basic safety equipment like steel-toed boots and safety glasses can lead to crippling injuries, according to Smith. "You're dealing with rim parts that weigh 300 to 400 pounds in some cases."

Safety glasses tend to be a hard sell, he says. "Nobody likes to wear them. But you're working with a lot of rusty rim parts, you're using compressed air, skives, grinders and different things. There's always an opportunity for a foreign object to end up in your eye."

Though the Mine Safety and Health Administration requires all service techs at mine sites to wear hard hats, it doesn't hurt to encourage their use either, he says.

Fire extinguishers and heavy-duty chocks also are must-haves. "Will chocks stop a runaway truck? No," Formanek says. "But you still need to block off your wheels."

Vital stats

Just as proper safety training can help prevent service mishaps, proper documentation of training can help stave off accident-driven lawsuits, says Fleet Equipment's Pearson.

He recalls a gruesome story from several years ago involving a road service tech who had just wrapped up a job. The veteran operator had crawled back underneath the semi trailer to collect his tools when the rig's driver "got in the trailer, started it up, began driving, ran over (the tech) and killed him."

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials investigated the incident and slammed the dead tech's employer with a stiff fine. Why? Even though the operator had followed all required service procedures, he had not signed papers that verified he'd been trained to do the work. "Management hadn't provided them for him," Pearson says.

"If something happens and the (service truck) tech has not acknowledged his schooling, you are liable." He suggests that every commercial tire dealer draw up a standardized form listing detailed, step-by-step service truck procedures that service truck operators can read and then sign off on.

Also make sure techs have access to every tool and piece of equipment on the checklist. "If you have not provided the items they signed off on, you can be held responsible. You can never predict what OSHA will do. However, without a document signed by the tech himself, you have no immunity."

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