Taking Driver Training to New Levels

April 1, 2000

16 Min Read
Taking Driver Training to New Levels

Michael Fickes

U.S. truck drivers ended the 20th century on a super safety note. According to federal statistics released at the end of last year, the 1990s stand out as the safest decade ever for the trucking industry.

The American Trucking Association (ATA), Alexandria, Va., says federal statistics show a 34 percent drop in the crash rate of large trucks over the past decade. The overall rate of 2.3 fatal crashes per 100 million miles traveled represents an all-time low. The ATA also notes that the rate of large trucks involved in injury declined 35 percent, and property damage accidents declined 25 percent during the '90s.

These safety improvements largely are due to increasingly comprehensive driver training programs throughout the trucking industry, including the nation's waste management companies.

While no figures summarize the waste industry's safety record, individual companies, small and large, have made driver training a centerpiece of their recruitment, safety and driver retention efforts. These training programs focus on the fundamentals required by federal and state law, as well as the issues specific to the waste industry and the individual companies' operations.

Casella Waste Systems, Rutland, Vt., for example, has grown into a major waste industry player spanning four regions in the Northeast and Southeast. As a result of its growth, Casella has had to construct and reconstruct administrative systems capable of ensuring that new hires in local offices, whether novice drivers or veterans, receive appropriate operations and safety training.

Growth Spurs Training Changes At the local operational level, E. L. Harvey & Sons, Westborough, Mass., trains new drivers in every aspect of the job. The company's one-on-one training program covers equipment, company procedures, customer service and time-tested safety practices in the classroom and out in the field.

Both companies' approach to training illustrates what Joseph Fusco, Casella vice president, calls the industry's arc of maturation during the past 10 years. "We are becoming a more mature industry," Fusco says. "Our practices are maturing, too, and driver training programs reflect it."

Casella recently rewrote its corporate guidelines for driver training, not because the old system didn't work, but because the company's growth has made it possible to adopt best practices found in the company's various operating units.

"We never have simply thrown a driver on the truck on day one," Fusco says. "We always have spent time training. In introducing our new program, we hope to go to the next training level and to incorporate the best practices from all of our operating units."

Casella also hopes its new driver training approach will reduce driver turnover and maintain control of insurance premium costs as the company and its fleet continue to grow.

The company's driver training program is not so much new as it is longer, more rigorous and more completely documented. While the old program trained drivers for one to two weeks, the new program lasts for three weeks, documents a new driver's strengths and weakness more comprehensively, and puts more training focus on areas where improvement is required.

Administratively, Casella favors a decentralized organization. This emphasis permeates driver training, as well.

"We've divided the company into four regions or divisions with their own operating units," Fusco says. "Each unit hires and trains its own drivers, and operates more or less independently."

In the company's western division, which encompasses Upstate New York and Pennsylvania, Colleen Wallace serves as safety director managing the driver training programs used by the division's operating units. Wallace says training considerations show up in Casella's hiring process.

The company requires a modest amount of experience, in the form of a Class A or B Commercial Driver's License (CDL), depending on the vehicle the driver will operate. Applicants must be 21 years old with no more than three moving violations in three years.

A driving record with any infraction related to drugs or alcohol, or a major accident or an accident involving a fatality, disqualifies an applicant. Candidates satisfying these requirements take a road test and are interviewed. An offer is contingent on a satisfactory pre-employment drug screen.

Let the Training Begin The three-week driver training program begins with a safety orientation covering policies about reporting injuries and accidents, personal protective equipment, hazardous event communications, lock-out-tag-out, blood-borne pathogens, fire extinguishers and so on.

Next, the driver tours the facility and meets the dispatcher and the person handling driver training. The trainer could be the operations manager, route supervisor or lead driver, depending upon the operation.

"Our operating units are free to pick the best qualified available trainer," Wallace says. Most new drivers receive small manuals on the equipment the driver will operate. "Some of our locations, not all, have these manuals," Wallace says. "We're developing manuals for all of our locations. Each [booklet] includes knowledge checks that the driver must complete."

On the second and third training day, the new driver rides as a passenger in a truck with the trainer to study the basic procedures on the time clock, route sheet, pre-trip inspection and close-out at the end of the day. Every day, both the driver and trainer check off what has been covered. New procedures are added to the list every training day. On the third day, for example, the trainer reviews beginning- and end-of-day procedures and covers the vehicle controls.

"The idea is to add more information each day while reviewing everything that was covered the day before," Wallace explains.

New drivers take the wheel on the fourth day of training, but only for four hours, with the trainer riding along. "Of course, this depends on the trainer's judgment about the person," Wallace says. "If the new driver fumbles around or gets nervous, we'll wait a day or two."

By the end of the fifth day, the new driver has been through procedures a number of times and driven the truck for eight hours. At that point, the trainer completes a five-page checklist on the full scope of vehicle operation. Here, the trainer rates the new driver's performance as excellent, acceptable or needs improvement.

"At the end of day five, both the driver and the trainer fill out another form," Wallace says. "The driver comments on areas where he feels confident or weak. So does the trainer. At this point, we have a pretty good checklist of training information that we can use during the next week."

Items judged to need improvement become the focus of the second week's training, along with additional tasks not covered the previous week. During the second week, the new driver increases his time behind the wheel, adding one hour each day. At the end of this week, the trainer fills out another five-page checklist, and both the driver and trainer also complete the comments form again.

"We want to make sure that the items that needed improvement the week before have been taken care of, so that they now are rated acceptable or excellent," Wallace says. "By the beginning of the third week, we expect the trainee to be comfortable with the work, and we begin to sharpen productivity and customer service skills. The trainer remains in the truck as a passenger for each nine-hour shift during week three."

For experienced drivers with knowledge of and interest in other equipment, week three also might involve cross training on other vehicles. "We have roll-off trucks, front- and rear-loading commercial packers, tractor trailers and residential trucks," Wallace says. "We ordinarily train new drivers to handle one piece of equipment. Depending on how they do, we might cross train, especially if a driver has a Class A CDL."

Wallace and her counterparts in other Casella divisions manage training by setting up standards, programs and guidelines for operating units across a large company. But the real training work is done at the operational level where trash is picked up every day.

Training in 90 Days E. L. Harvey & Sons is a company with one location in Westborough, Mass. The company's comprehensive driver training program starts well-before an individual is hired and encompasses the first 90 full days of employment. Continuing employment depends on the new driver's performance during those 90 days. Some don't make it.

"I've had new drivers come in part way through the program and tell me that they aren't cut out for the work," says Gerald R. Sjogren, E. L. Harvey's safety director. "We'll part company then, with no hard feelings. Our training program is tough. But, it gives you a good idea of what the job requires."

Sjogren, of course, prefers that his new drivers make it all the way through the program, and he goes to great lengths to find the right people. As part of the process, Sjogren advertises for drivers with Class A CDLs, because the company's fleet includes tractor trailers and pup trailers hauled behind roll-offs. Both require a Class A license.

Sjogren also hires drivers with Class B licenses to run front-loaders.

E. L. Harvey maintains a staff of 60 drivers, which Sjogren selects during a rigorous interview process. "The most important thing about hiring a driver is getting someone that fits with what we do," Sjogren says. "The first thing I say to an applicant is that if you've come here to be a driver, you're in the wrong place. That makes them look at me funny, but it's important to say. Our company is known for its customer service, and our drivers provide that service with a lot of hard labor in all kinds of weather extremes and under all kinds of conditions."

Sjogren also explores contemporary driving issues with candidates during interviews. He wants to know, for example, whether the person has a temper and might fly into a rage out on the road or in front of a customer. "Some customers will step all over you," he says. "Dealing with that is part of the job."

How do you spot a person with a temper when he is behaving well during a job interview? "I ask how a person might handle specific situations," Sjogren says. "I also ask about the worst boss he or she has ever had. I look for responses that indicate an easy-going, level-headed person, someone that can go with the flow. If an applicant describes an argument with a tough boss and gets worked up about it, that might turn me off. You have to listen to the way people express themselves when responding to these kinds of questions."

Sjogren also studies applicants' driving records, looking for disqualifying violations. "A lot of speeding tickets, accidents or violations for driving under the influence would disqualify an applicant," he says. "But I always look at the timeframe, too. One minor accident in the past three or four years, and I'll talk to the person. If a person has a single DUI, I might look at him or her if it was more than five years ago. I have to hear an acceptable explanation, though."

First You Have to Pass the Test When Sjogren extends an offer to an applicant, it is contingent upon the successful completion of E. L. Harvey's 90-day orientation and training program [see "The E.L. Harvey Driver Training Program on 246].

Sjogren discusses this issue and the company's philosophies about customer service during an hour-long meeting with the new driver on his or her first day of work.

"I talk with the driver about what we want," Sjogren says. "We want you to be five minutes early rather than five minutes late. We want you to 'yes' the customer to death, regardless of what the customer says to you. We don't want you ever to respond in a mean-spirited way. If there is a problem, we'll handle it here at the office. It's not your job. Your job is to say yes."

Next, the new driver meets the E. L. Harvey trainer, Mike Hashem, who received a National Solid Waste Management Association's 1999 driver of the year award and who boasts a couple million miles of accident-free driving.

Hashem and the new driver spend four to six weeks on the road together, covering every possible safety, operational and customer-service issue that might arise.

Early hands-on work takes place in the controlled environment of the yard. For example, the new driver will learn to operate the roll-off controls at the E. L. Harvey facility, studying the cable, the hoist, proper hoisting procedures and proper assembly positioning for a positive lock on the rails. The new driver also will practice the operation from inside the cab. Training covers solutions to the kinds of problems that arise.

"We show the driver how to deal with a situation at a transfer station when a load of corrugated is stuck and the operator is screaming at you to get out of there and make way for the other trucks," Sjogren says. "Sometimes, we have to pull experienced drivers back. They might think they have been driving a tractor trailer forever, but they never have hauled a top-heavy trash trailer that weighs 80,000 pounds. If you don't know what you are doing, you can flip right over."

At the end of each week, Hashem discusses progress with the driver and Sjogren. Before moving forward, Hashem must be comfortable with the new driver's progress and be able to make Sjogren comfortable.

At some point, between four and six weeks, Sjogren and Hashem ask the new driver whether he feels comfortable about soloing. If the answer is yes, the driver receives assignments that will keep him close to the office, just in case he needs help.

After several more weeks of close-to-home soloing and no significant problems, Sjogren sends the driver to a defensive driving school run by the Central Massachusetts Chapter of the National Safety Council.

"This is a great program," Sjogren says. "It takes an entire day and includes both classroom discussion and on-the-road work. The class rides around Boston in a van, talking about what is happening on the road and what to anticipate.

"The Council also has an outdoor skidpad," Sjogren continues, "and that's the greatest part of the program. You drive the course in a truck with an instructor. You take it up to 50 miles per hour, and the instructor locks the brakes. You have to pull yourself out of a skid. It's an incredible experience."

The results are incredible, too. "We don't have anything more than minor accidents, and our insurance company loves us," Sjogren attests. "Once a new driver completes our program, he or she becomes part of a hell of a crew of very safe drivers."

Sjogren says he wishes other companies would train their drivers as carefully. "Many don't do anything nearly as comprehensive as what we do," he says.

"Why not?

"You're using a $120,000 truck, and you're putting a human being inside," he says. "You have people and property to protect. You have a reputation with your customers to protect. Your name is plastered all over the truck. And you have your own family out there on the road. How can you even consider sending a new driver out in a truck without the proper training?"

In 1999, Gerald R. Sjogren, safety director with E. L. Harvey & Sons of Westborough, Mass., made a presentation to the Driver Training Development Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based American Trucking Association organization. The presentation included an outline of E. L. Harvey's comprehensive driver training program. Here are the highlights.

I. Hiring practice

Hire applicants who are most qualified for the position, as determined by the following procedures:

* Interview;

* Reference check;

* Driver record check;

* License qualification check;

* Follow up on previous employment;

* DOT/Fit for work physical;

* Physical based on DOT qualifications and physical ability to perform essential functions of the job; and

* Drug testing.

II. Orientation, which includes:

* General overview of company and its philosophies;

* 90-day orientation;

* Safety standards;

* Company policies, including rules, regulations and procedures;

* Benefits;

* Drug and alcohol regulations and testing;

* Random testing;

* Post accident; and

* Reasonable suspicion.

III. Hands-on training (in the yard with a supervisor learning the basics of roll-off truck operations), including:

* Pre- and post-trip inspections and equipment safety checks;

* Familiarization with equipment in a controlled environment;

* Procedures for hoisting containers onto trucks;

* Instruction on proper operation and driving of vehicles;

* Material handling;

* Learning how to off-load material;

* Identifying various materials; and

* Identifying where different materials belong at the facility.

A. Evaluate after one week. Questions to ask are:

* Is the supervisor satisfied with progress?

* Is more time needed?

* Is this person suitable to hold this position?

* Is this person ready to move on to the next level of training?

B. Road training with a driver /instructor. New drivers should:

* Have one week of observation from the passenger seat;

* Learn the daily routine;

* Get to know where customers are;

* Familiarize themselves with basic controls inside the cab;

* Understand communication procedures using the two way radio;

* Learn to call in properly;

* Handle paperwork, such as filling out daily dockets, vehicle inspection reports and customer slips;

* Learn good customer service. New drivers should observe the little extras that need to be done for customer satisfaction;

* Learn proper interaction with customers. Drivers should have a neat appearance, as well as be calm and courteous; and

* Create account listings with addresses and directions to locate customers.

C. Evaluation: Is the new driver ready to progress to the next step or is more time needed?

* Begin vehicle operation: three weeks or more if needed;

* Trainer observes;

* Reinforce the importance of paper work;

* Cover hands on safe operation of equipment;

* Study different equipment configurations;

* Learn to deal with potentially hazardous situations, such as when do you call for help.

* Emphasize the importance of teamwork, such as calling other drivers or dispatch for assistance;

* Learning the driver's specific responsibilities at each stop; and

* Get accustomed to procedure.

D. Final evaluation with instructor: Is the new driver ready to solo?

* Is more time needed;

* Is this person suited or not suited for this type of work;

* Are company procedure's followed;

* Allow the driver to solo:

* Keep the driver close to base in case problems develop; and

* Over time, allow the driver to venture farther out.

IV. Defensive driving school:

Central Massachusetts Chapter of the National Safety Council.

* Defensive driving;

* Classroom session;

* Emergency reaction driving;

* Instructor led discussion;

* Following distance;

* Stopping distance;

* Pre-trip inspection;

* Seat belts;

* Backing;

* Alcohol and driving;

* Skid control;

* Emphasis on defenses against predominate types of accidents;

* Emergency reaction maneuvers;

* Outdoor skid track;

* Serpentine exercise;

* Evasive steering;

* Controlled braking;

* Off shoulder recovery;

* Controlling skids;

* Feeling and controlling lockups;

* Commentary driving;

* Behind the wheel on the street;

* Put defensive driving concepts into practice;

* Talk out loud about what is ahead, behind and to the sides while driving; and

* Positively critiqued on performance.

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