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Haulin' HAZMAT

by Jim Park

Suicide jockeys. The name sure has a ring to it, eh? In days gone by, when the trucking industry used a more imaginative vocabulary than it does today, that was the nickname for someone who hauled anything dangerous, like gasoline or dynamite. But if you looked at that little moniker in context, you'd see that the standards and requirements in place back then did indeed make life for the HAZMAT hauler a bit more precarious than they are today.

It's quite understandable that many drivers avoid dangerous loads on principle. Who needs the extra risk? Well, take it from a fellow who hauled chemicals all his trucking life; it's no worse than anything else if you do it properly.

I don't glow in the dark, I've got no unusual protuberances on my body, and through common sense and reading the labels, I never had any serious problems with the material I hauled. Perhaps the worst parts of the whole dangerous goods thing were the driver's meetings where the handbook came out for discussion.

Borr-rring.

Just to clarify, the term used in Canada for the discussion of anything pertaining to hauling placarded loads is Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG); the Americans call it HAZMAT. We'll use the latter here, because everyone else seems to.

In the post 9-11 era we find HAZMAT haulers coming under increasing scrutiny, and having to follow a rapidly expanding rulebook because of what a terrorist might get up to with a load of dangerous chemicals. Whether or not the fears are founded remains to be seen. But since the industry has to respond to the regulations, it's safe to say that the driver's life has become more complicated since then, and it's not likely to get easier.

Forgetting the new reality for a moment, the HAZMAT driver does have considerably more to deal with than the freight hauler in terms of paperwork, trailer loading restrictions and regulations, travel restrictions, and general hands-on responsibility. Fortunately, little of what must be done to successfully comply with all the rules is left to the driver's imagination. Handling the cargo and responding to emergencies are equally well defined by the regulations - there's no room for guesswork here.

Both Canada and the U.S. have done a good job in preparing driver's handbooks, which outline requirements and restrictions, so compliance comes down to following the instructions. Where conflicts sometimes arise is when the shipper has a different interpretation of the regulations. And to be honest, sometimes the Canadian and American regulations differ. That creates its share of complications, but when you're aware of the differences, you can deal with them.

It's sometimes the fear of the unknown that keeps drivers away from HAZMAT loads; not knowing what might happen if... A perfectly reasonable concern, but most of the response procedures are described from a first-responder perspective in the driver's handbook, as are the hazards involved with a particular chemical. Further, all loads of hazardous material must have an accompanying Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which discusses toxicity, flammability, reactivity, etc., for the chemical. Having read my share of MSDS documents, I can tell you that knowing what the product is all about is somewhat reassuring, if not comforting.

For drivers who aren't steeped in the HAZMAT culture, there are lots of little things that can be easily overlooked when you slap the placards on the truck only once in a blue moon. But be warned, the enforcement folk aren't as likely to overlook the problems. Here are a few of the more common transgressions:

  • Smoking in, or within 25 ft of, a truck containing flammable materials.
  • Driving through a tunnel or driving on a restricted route with hazardous materials.
  • Failing to keep the shipping papers at hand's reach, and keeping a copy on your person at all times when out of the truck.
  • Failing to update your driver's TDG card every two years, or failing to carry it with you.
  • Not referring to the handbook for segregation instructions, and making sure all placards involved are displayed on the trailer.

And as far as the common-sense precautions go, there are a few things a driver can do to mitigate the risks involved, but there are no regulations at play here, just self-preservation.

  • Strip all the nails from wood-floor trailers before loading drums of liquid.
  • Brace all drum loads securely to prevent movement; they tend to walk all over the trailer.
  • If you're involved in handling the material, or exposed to vapor and residue, request the same personal safety gear - rubber gloves, respiratory protection, face shields - that the shipper uses.
  • Be aware that some material may give off fumes, which may require you to vent an enclosed van before you enter it.
  • Always ask the shipper for a couple of spare placards, especially if they are the flimsy paper ones the Americans use. If they decompose in foul weather, or come off for some reason, you're on the hook for an improperly placarded load.
  • Always compare the placard required by the shipping papers with the placard called for in the driver's handbook. Chances are the handbook is correct, so don't just take the shipper's word for it. And yes, the shipper is responsible for issuing the correct placards.

A New Reality

In the weeks and months following the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center towers, the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) concluded that trucks bearing hazardous cargoes might be targeted by terrorists, and thus become "weapons of mass destruction". A bit of a stretch, some think, but the Administration has taken concrete steps to tighten security for drivers and companies engaged in HAZMAT transportation.

FMCSA has proposals on the table now that would require HAZMAT drivers to submit to rigorous security screening, including fingerprinting, criminal background checks through the FBI, RCMP, and possibly INTERPOL, personal interviews, and more.

HAZMAT carriers, both here and south of the border, are more than a little concerned that they could see a significant portion of the existing driver pool dry up because drivers aren't willing to be subjected to that kind of scrutiny. Regardless of the reasons, many drivers see the process as a gross invasion of their privacy, for which there's little return.

Larry Greenwood, transportation manager for the Mississauga, Ont.-based tank fleet, Liquiterminals, Ltd., says he's already had the majority of his customer base request photo identification from drivers before admitting them to their plants. Further, Greenwood says, the chemical plants are implementing more stringent security measures as well as internal loading and unloading policies and procedures.

"We didn't have a problem with the photo ID; we did it internally," Greenwood says, "But the day is coming when they'll want something more substantial, more credible."

He's referring to some sort of biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint or retinal scan, imbedded in the card for more positive identification. Greenwood hopes that the chemical companies might settle for using the same ID card that may soon be required as part of the new Free and Secure Trade (FAST) protocol recently established by both Canada and the U.S.

Winnipeg's Larry Dyck, president of Jade Transport there, another chemical tank fleet, says he has been asked by some of his customers to provide a written security plan to protect his fleet and his terminal. The security plan, as well as a number of other initiatives, is included in a comprehensive proposal currently under study by the U.S. DOT.

To say the least, the Yanks are taking this whole thing pretty seriously. But so far, neither Greenwood nor Dyck has reported any random roadside security inspections of their trucks or drivers.

"But I'll tell you how bad it's getting," Dyck says. "Last week, one of my drivers was hauled out of his truck at gunpoint by about a dozen guys at the border. He had been through one of those gamma-ray scanners, and they noticed a bundle of cardboard calendar mailing tubes in his bunk. They thought the tubes were pipe bombs."

The difficulties could hit even closer to home. Greenwood recalls an older driver who once worked for him. Reliable, knowledgeable, and a real professional - but illiterate. He'd be out of a job if requirements come into effect calling for more reports and paperwork to be filled out. He'd just be unable to write the tests and interpret the new documentation.

"I can't put a guy like that out of work. What am I supposed to do?" he asks. "I took the question up with a DOT auditor recently, and all he could offer was, 'That's not our f***in' problem.'"

So, wrapping up, there's obviously a challenge or three in this world. Changing security requirements have added to the cost of shipping hazardous materials both in terms of compliance and lost income for drivers. Shippers must begin to accept the real cost of moving a load of hazardous material. And given the risks involved, the shareholders won't settle for the lowest paid turkey that can steer the truck through the gate. They will have to pay for top-quality help if they want to stay off the front page of the paper. There's no way around that.

On the upside, adding HAZMAT experience to your resume will increase your employability. Drivers who do it for a living are necessarily better drivers. There's more on the line. Look around you: you'll seldom see the folks with placards weaving through traffic and tailgating. After a while, the safe driving thing just becomes part of the routine. It's part of the comfort zone they create to deal with the increased risk associated with HAZMAT. Getting there isn't risky, the rewards are long-term, and the career benefits are tangible.

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