There's Trouble Overhead

WASTE COLLECTION VEHICLES are colliding with overhead objects too frequently, yet safety efforts are targeting other areas. Considerable driver safety education in the waste industry has focused on maintaining a forward safety cushion to reduce rear-end accidents. Driver training efforts also have focused on side and rear safety cushions to help reduce sideswipe and backing accidents. More attention, however, needs to be paid to overhead clearances or the “top safety cushion,” as overhead object accidents can cause substantial property damage claims.

Two types of overhead object accidents can occur. The first type happens when a waste collection vehicle drives under or too close to an overhead object that does not offer enough clearance. The second type occurs when part of the vehicle, usually the forks, hoist or tailgate, is left up in the air and strikes an object that the vehicle itself would normally clear.

Waste collection trucks sit considerably higher than most other vehicles on the road. Therefore, they are always at risk of striking awnings, canopies, drive-thru window overhangs, fire escapes, tree branches, low hanging wires, and certain bridges and overpasses. While heights usually are marked on bridges and overpasses, most other overhead hazards require the driver to determine if there is safe clearance. Tree limbs and wires, for instance, may hang lower after a storm. Roadway repaving or accumulations of snow or ice on the road might reduce clearances under bridges and overpasses. Waste truck drivers constantly need to be aware of vehicle heights and potential overhead object hazards along their paths.

While the waste truck itself runs the risk of hitting overhead objects, the problem often is made worse because of some vehicles' unique features. Front-load trucks have torn down wires during collection and have hit overhead objects with forks left up during travel. Overhead doors at transfer stations frequently are damaged when drivers do not lower the tailgate before exiting the facility. Finally, and most serious of all, severe and even fatal accidents have occurred with roll-off trucks traveling down the road with the hoist left in the up position. Waste truck drivers need to be reminded that overhead object accidents are more likely when using special features.

Fleets can significantly reduce the risk of overhead accidents by taking the following precautions:

  • Design routes and plan collection stops to minimize exposure to overhead object hazards.

  • Establish a program of clandestine driver observations and/or supervisor ride-alongs with drivers to make sure that safety practices are being followed (such as being conscious of overhead objects and clearances and not traveling with the forks or hoist in the air).

  • Hold safety meetings for current drivers and training sessions for new drivers to make sure that they are familiar with the dangers posed by overhead objects. Because of the issue's importance, a safety meeting on the topic should be held at least once a year.

  • Frequently remind drivers of their vehicles' heights and to be aware of clearances and overhead hazards. This can be accomplished with bulletin board messages, paycheck stuffers, comments during regular driver safety meetings and periodic announcements over the radio.

  • Make sure that all vehicles have adequate warning lights and/or buzzers in the cab that alert drivers when the hoist, forks or tailgate are in the up position.

  • Make safety performance and compliance with safety policies part of a driver's performance review and part of any safety incentive or bonus program.

Bruce Hooker R.F. Mattei & Associates of CA Insurance Service Sacramento, Calif.