Running the Route

Stock prices and mergers aside, everyone knows that the real business of waste management takes place on the streets. Refuse truck drivers and collection managers are among the most essential employees in waste management. They face a host of challenges — ever-increasing traffic, increasing regulations and demanding customers — yet remain motivated to do their jobs. What keeps their wheels turning?

To find out, Waste Age spoke with several of the nation's top refuse truck drivers, as well as collection managers.

The five truck drivers either are Environmental Industry Associations Driver of the Year award recipients or Solid Waste Association of North America chapter Road-E-O winners, and include:

  • Alberto Aguilar, Browning-Ferris Industries (Allied Waste Industries), San Antonio, Texas;
  • Michael Maloney, city of San Diego, Calif.;
  • Eugene Rehbein, Walter's Recycling and Refuse, Circle Pine Minn;
  • Gary Schrader, Northern Tier Solid Waste Authority, Burlington Pa.; and
  • John Updike, Browning-Ferris Industries (Allied Waste), Commerce City, Colo.
  • The collection managers are:

  • Mike Hoyt, field operations director, city of Glendale, Ariz.;
  • Mike Paine, president of Paine's Inc., Simsbury, Conn., and vice-chair of the board of governors of the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C.; and
  • Charles Ross, deputy director of the collections division, solid waste management department, city of Houston.
  • Waste Age (WA): How did you get into the waste industry and what do you like and dislike about your job?

    Aguilar: Since I was young, I've always wanted to drive a truck. I know that sounds corny, but I am going on 30 years. I like the support that it has provided for my family through the years, and being able to service the customers that depend on you to be there.

    Maloney: I was looking for a job one day and was in line to interview with Greyhound. Somebody said the city had openings — it was difficult finding a job back in 1974. I applied and got it. But I like [driving a garbage truck] because I'm out on my own. Nobody's hounding me, and when I retire, I'll have something to show for it.

    Rehbein: I have been driving trucks for 20 years and enjoy it. With roll-offs, I'm always doing something different everyday. We have permanent accounts, but it's not like on a regular residential route where you go and pick up from the same people week after week. That's what makes my job nice.

    Schrader: I have been in the business for three years, and I have done a lot of different things, and I don't mind this job because there's a good bunch of people to work with, good equipment and everybody gets along.

    Updike: When I first started in the business, I had family out in Colorado, so we moved here. I needed a job, and my sister-in-law knew people that worked here, so I applied and got right in. But I've been doing it for about 17 years because I like being out on my own, and I like the people that I work with.

    WA: As a collection manager, what is the best thing about your job? The most challenging?

    Hoyt: The best thing is the diversity. There is never a day that is like any other day. Any type of operation presents many different challenges, and those challenges change over time and sometimes change dramatically. The most satisfying part of the job is addressing those challenges in a timely and professional way. The worst thing probably is dealing with the regulatory side of the job. It's not an issue of the regulators not doing a good job or the job they're entrusted to do, it's developing a common language where the regulatory community can understand the concerns of solid waste managers and we solid waste managers can understand the concerns of the environmental community.

    Paine: The best thing is the people we get to work with. We have a fun crew here that knows we have a job to do to take care of the customer. But we also have fun because you have to enjoy what you do. The most challenging thing is dealing with the customer that you just can't seem to satisfy. Sometimes you have to step back and ask whether you're doing the best job you can. Sometimes it's not a question you want to ask or answer. Sometimes you're not going to satisfy that customer, but we know we're going to take great pains to take care of that customer.

    Ross: I like being in the industry and dealing with the environment. In the early part of my career, we picked up the garbage and buried or burned it. With the regulations now, it's a challenge. A downside is being concerned about the employees that are working under your direction. Employees lose morale because the job is redundant and they don't many “atta-boys.” If you have an equipment problem, for example, they can't get home to their families. When you take the employee's side of it, it can be disheartening.

    WA: What are the key concerns facing today's refuse truck operators?

    Aguilar: Safety, but that's pretty much taken care of because we have monthly safety meetings for all of our drivers.

    Maloney: Traffic, and making sure your truck is up to par and everything is safe. When you're out in the field, you have to really concentrate. You don't get a break, and you are vulnerable.

    Rehbein: The main thing that I have noticed in the past three or four years is trying to find able-bodied drivers. People that can drive the route, drive the equipment and operate everything safely. We've really started working a lot more on training in the past few years, [but] it's tough trying to find drivers.

    Schrader: Trying to pick up new customers and make sure they are satisfied. Sometimes you have to bend over backwards to make them happy, because that's what keeps you in business.

    Updike: Traffic is getting really heavy for us. We also have a lot of new guys and have difficulty finding anyone with experience, so we need to train longer. It's competitive up here. I've had other companies try to take drivers away.

    WA: What are the key concerns facing collection managers today?

    Hoyt: The rising amount of solid waste volume that we're seeing, the rising cost of providing service and yet a resistance on the part of ratepayers to pay more for the service. We're faced with the challenge of doing everything we possibly can to handle more waste at a lower unit cost, through innovation and creativity. And if as a public agency we can't effectively provide cost-effective service, we will have to look at privatization options. City governments, particularly in public works, are used to providing these as a hidden service — that is providing the service and not having much interaction with customers. That is no longer the case. We've done a lot of work to improve in that area.

    Paine: The top two or three concerns, aside from anthrax and issues related to Sept. 11th, are finding and keeping qualified drivers, and this is followed by increasing costs. Last year the cost of diesel fuel went up more than $2 dollars per gallon. This year we're also looking at the insurance market — not just medical. Automotive and general liability insurance are going up. Regarding diesel fuel costs, we sucked it up. For automotive and general liability and medical insurance [increases], we adjusted ourselves, buying better, smarter. We're looking at markets to see how to reduce costs but still have adequate insurance. To keep qualified drivers, we take care of our people and allow them to shift around and move up in our company.

    Ross: Regulatory issues. No. 2 is doing more with less — especially with automated collection program, where you're required to do more with your operations than in the past. The other concern is creating opportunities to compete against the private sector. Sometimes I think elected officials are under the impression that cities cannot challenge or compete with the private industry in picking up garbage from the citizenry. That's a myth. Cities can compete but [sometimes] aren't afforded the opportunities to play on a level playing field.

    WA: What features do you like or dislike about the truck that you operate on a regular basis?

    Aguilar: I drive one of the new trucks, and it's like a Cadillac. It's automatic, has air and a radio. It's real comfortable and does the job well.

    Maloney: My truck has levers for my left hand and buttons for your right hand [to control the arm]. It has a smaller clamp.

    Rehbein: My route is the Minneapolis /St. Paul area, so I drive in alleys and tight areas. [My truck] really makes a difference in turning and handling. I run 250 to 350 miles per day, and that is seven to 10 loads, and three to four deliveries.

    Schrader: I drive a great truck, right down to air-conditioning and double air-ride seats. My boss does what he does to keep drivers happy because he knows we have to be in [the truck] all day long.

    Updike: The new trucks just keep getting easier to operate. Instead of the old, mechanical controls, everything is air now. It's just a much better, safer truck. I love the way it handles. With a heavy load, there's no swaying, and the vision is really good off to the sides. I also like the tarpers because you don't have to climb on the loads anymore.

    WA: Has technology changed collection in the past couple years?

    Hoyt: Our city has been automated since 1983. In the desert, automated collection provides greater sanitary collection than manual. With the automated 90-gallon containers, you virtually have no problem with vectors, flies, etc., and that's a major sanitary benefit. A reduction in labor costs is a major benefit. Technology also has given us several other benefits — billing is obviously one, because billing is computerized. We track every complaint that comes into the facility, and we put it into an automated complaint system. That complaint and the history of how it's resolved are recorded. That assists us to see whether there's a trend of problems. We have a very active website, where we give up-to-date information to our residents — they do respond to that. And I think it will get more popular over time as computers become part of our daily life. Lastly, all of our staff and crew have cell phones. Now I can speak to anyone in the field very quickly, they can speak to us, and communication is greatly enhanced.

    Paine: The best thing we did was get the radios that are radios and cell phones in one. And we set up a radio system with the managers where you call them right away. It's really helped managers get things resolved quickly. We have fixed radios in the trucks — [the radios are] a layer for manager-to-manager communication. We also just got voice mail; we're digesting that, and it's working well. And we do a lot of educating, so people aren't hiding behind their voice mail. It's just another tool. All of this stuff provides just different ways to communicate. It comes down to how well you communicate.

    Ross: Certainly, we've made some improvements in the industry. I noticed at WASTECON [held in October in Baltimore] that there was a new type of vehicle that has an automated arm with a rear-loading attachment to it. [Drivers] could use the automated collection arm to pick up the cans, but if there is additional material, they could throw it in the back. We also have established routing through our GIS (geographic information system). Citizens can pull that information off of our website. We can structure routes based on the number of houses in our system. Our automated system counts the number of stops each vehicle makes each day. It gives us the data we might need at a later time.

    WA: Should 18- to 20-year-olds be licensed to drive a truck?

    Aguilar: Experience is a big factor, so I would say that it is too young. Of course this depends on the training that they receive and how they respond. But I would say probably not.

    Maloney: I don't think they should. You have to have a little bit of experience behind the wheel, and I don't think you realize this when you're young.

    Rehbein: I don't believe anyone younger than 21 may have the patience required to drive a truck. I am sure that people that are 18 or 19 looking for jobs think differently. I started driving when I was 18, and I know how I drove then, and I know how I drive now. It's completely different.

    Schrader: There are some out there that shouldn't be in a truck. We train our own drivers if they don't have a license. You kind of help them along.

    Updike: I watch some of these young guys, and I would like to see them better trained. I don't think they are experienced or patient enough. When I first started driving, the hardest thing to learn was to relax. If someone cuts you off, you just fade back and move on. You can't let that affect you. I have talked to people before to calm them down and just say, ‘drink a cup of coffee or soda, and just relax.’ It's part of the job, and move on.

    WA: Are safety and training a major concern for your collection operation?

    Hoyt: It is the single biggest concern with the fleet. In our particular city, we have 218,000 citizens, 600 miles of streets and 50,000 single-family customers in our residential service. The job is demanding and potentially hazardous because [there are] opportunities for traditional automobile-type accidents, property accidents or, the worst possible scenario, hitting pedestrians. There's an even bigger danger on the major streets in our community with rear-end collisions, and that is because of anti-lock brakes. More automobiles have anti-lock brakes, and [cars] stop considerably faster than our drivers are used to. We're modifying training to adjust our trucks to the environment in which they are operating. We have time devoted to safety training each and every week, and we do major training several times a year.

    Paine: We take safety and training very seriously. We do everything we can to walk the walk and talk the talk. If our people see something unsafe, we tell them to tell us. There are never [employee] repercussions for telling us something's wrong. We make sure our guys understand how to make their job safe. And we listen to them — it's not top down, it's bottom up. Although it hasn't been that long since I was driving a truck, I have to listen to them.

    Ross: Safety and training go hand-in-hand with the whole operation. We gauge our operation's productivity through safety and training. We meet with employees in daily tailgate sessions where we share what happened through the day and what happened the day before. For example, maybe school has started, or maybe a vehicle flipped over and it was because of a bald tire. We have a heavy-vehicle training program that's provided to all employees. The city also has a zero-tolerance drug policy.

    WA: What suggestions do you have for your fellow drivers in the industry?

    Aguilar: The biggest problem is people not showing up on time. That really affects not being able to get to customers. Also, be careful out on the road. Anticipate what the other guy does. I wake up every morning and anticipate someone running a stoplight. It is scary, but I have gone through it so many times. Just anticipate what is going to happen, and you'll be a safe driver.

    Maloney: Always be on your toes. Automated is stressful because you're always concentrating. People like to put cans close to cars. You are constantly dealing with parked cars, basketball hoops, motor homes and campers parked on the street. You can't ever relax.

    Rehbein: Try to be safe. Come to work everyday, do the best that you can and don't let traffic get to you. One of the main things is your attitude. Try to keep your best attitude about things. The best thing is finding a good company and sticking with them. If you have a company that sticks behind you, it makes your day go a lot better.

    Schrader: Get involved in Road-E-Os. Winning this year's was my first, and I thought it was great. It's something you do everyday. Everything was explained to us, and we were taken through the whole course [before the competition]. It is a learning experience for anyone that has never done it before; you'll enjoy it.

    Updike: Keep up on training, slow down and keep a lot of following distance. What amazes me in this business is everything constantly gets better.

    WA: What advice do you have for fellow collection managers?

    Hoyt: Talk to the operators, frequently. Nothing replaces the experience of those who are providing the service. The solid waste manager's job is to support those who are providing the service, not the other way around. If you don't understand the experiences they have, you can't provide the services we need to provide to our customers. They are the key; don't forget them.

    Paine: Communicate. All of your guys have good ideas. We have a system from our insurance agent that's helped our safety program. Whether it's your guy on the back of the truck, going to a trade show, or reading [industry] magazines, there are lots of smart people out there who have good ideas.

    Ross: Stay abreast of the changes in regulations and in equipment. And pay attention to the workforce and employee morale. We had an employee awards ceremony, and it had a big effect on the team to recognize the work they do.

    Contributing Editor Lynn Merrill is the director of public services for the city of San Bernardino, Calif. Kim O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.