Life and Family

Doing Your Job


Fuel Jockeys

by Mike Smith
Untitled Document

Hauling fuel is a real eye-opener for drivers who are used to the hurry-up-to-wait mind-set of freight and flatdeck hauling. Fuel drivers load, drive, and unload by themselves and, in some cases, even do their own dispatching. While the job comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility, pay is typically 15 to 20% above average, and usually includes a comprehensive benefits package, pension plans or profit sharing, as well as safety bonuses, safe driving awards and various other incentives.

When it comes to choosing a career in trucking, most drivers gravitate to general freight or flat decks - over 70% of what moves on trucks falls into those categories. Of the remaining 30%, petroleum distribution accounts for almost a third of all bulk freight, and represents a large chunk of the liquid transportation market. You'll find gas stations in every part of the country, and with refining and production facilities centered along major pipelines, distribution terminals and bulk plants are spread from coast to coast creating demand for petroleum delivery drivers in every region of the country. There may be steady demand for fuel haulers in Canada today, but there's zero tolerance for drivers who don't take the business seriously.

In other words, it's not the job for everybody, and not everybody can do the job.
Fuel distribution operates on a 24/7 basis, creating a dispatcher's nightmare - one compounded by the shortage of qualified drivers. In the petroleum business, it's common to find semi-retired drivers working as part-timers on weekend shifts and filling in for vacationing regulars. It's exactly the sort of job that appeals to an older driver - minimal supervision, above-average pay, extremely well maintained equipment, and handling procedures that place a premium on a driver's ability to be organized, tidy, and efficient.

As in other segments of trucking, the driver shortage is also affecting fuel haulers. The upside - for drivers - is that carriers, eager to maintain a competent workforce, are doing more to make fuel hauling a career of choice for the newer drivers, and they are encouraging their better drivers to stay for as long as they want to work. As Barry Briggs, the manager of safety and compliance at Tudhope Cartage in Parry Sound, Ontario, says, "Ten years from now we're going to have a problem in this whole industry."

Market Forces
Fuel delivery depends heavily on market demand, so fuel-hauling fleets have to be prepared for temporary fluctuations in volume. Demand varies on a daily basis due to rapid price changes, regional pricing anomalies, and seasonal demand, such as long weekends. Gasoline sales are typically heavier in summer with holiday travel and the increased use of RVs and boats. Winter brings a shift in demand to the middle distillates such as home heating oil and diesel fuel.

Effective dispatching in fuel delivery is a constant juggling act, a just-in-time process which often sees the truck arriving for a delivery just as the service station is about to run dry - a black mark in this industry. The loss of customers to a competitor may be temporary, but in a business with such slim profit margins, every sale counts.

Most oil companies are phasing out their own fleets and focusing on their core business of production and marketing. This has led to an increased reliance on outside carriers for distribution, but the oil companies remain very picky about who hauls their product. There are standards carriers must meet before being considered by the refiners as suitable partners. And it doesn't end with getting a foot in the door. Constant monitoring and strict auditing procedures are in place to ensure that carriers adhere to industry practices established by The Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (CPPI), an industry group that includes producers, distributors and marketers. They set policy related to the handling of fuel products, environmental standards, government relations, and public information.

Making the grade as a fuel driver demands more than being good at driving trucks. Many who already have considerable driving experience are routinely refused employment if they haven't got what it takes to handle hazardous liquid cargo. There's a certain attitude that fuel outfits are looking for when they evaluate a potential new hire and driving skill and a clean record are only part of it.

Glenn Dougan, operations manager for Manteis Transport in Edmonton says his company demands a lot of a driver, and something less than 40% of the drivers who pass the initial interview ever make it to the street in one of his trucks.

"We're looking for drivers who are conscientious, willing to learn and are procedure-oriented," he insists. "It's the details that count in fuel-hauling."
Dougan pointed to Manteis's comprehensive in-house training program: it includes three days of classroom orientation followed by at least two weeks in the truck with a driver-trainer. The new hire is then evaluated based on more than 40 points considered critical for safe fuel handling. It can be up to three weeks before a driver is allowed to solo.

There's a constant emphasis on upgrade training throughout the fuel industry and it's very popular with drivers. As Barry Briggs from Tudhope puts it, "We conduct bi-annual training seminars dealing with current issues. They're very informative and we have a 99% attendance at safety meetings." These seminars reinforce attitudes about safety and attention to detail - the two most important attributes in a successful fuel hauler.

In addition, driver certification in the Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) and Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) is also required. Tank drivers take training in fire fighting, spill control, and accident scene management as well, and in some cases, companies may sponsor first-aid programs for drivers. These credentials illustrate the enormous responsibility carriers and drivers have in this business - no one takes the handling of fuel products lightly because the consequences of error due to negligence or misinformation are staggering.

A Typical Day
A driver's shift begins with the standard pre-trip inspection with extra emphasis placed on the trailers' plumbing and electronics. The aluminum tanks are sturdy but require close and constant inspection as they are easily damaged.
As with most third-party logistics arrangements, dispatch is done by the carrier on behalf of the oil company's customer. They will plan the correct load for each unit. Usually it's the driver's responsibility to ensure that the load is distributed properly in each compartment to comply with axle weight restrictions. The total weight of the load must come as close to maximum as possible because under-loading is unprofitable and overloads are illegal. There's a very fine line here as variations in both the densities and temperatures of the products are common. The driver must correctly calculate the amounts to be loaded - a short but critical bit of number crunching.

The loading site (called 'the rack') is nothing more than an enormous filling station. The truck is positioned with the passenger side next to the loading arms, a series of fully articulated pipes that have loading couplers compatible with the fittings on the trailers. An electrical connection (called a 'Scully') establishes both electrical grounding and a sensor link between the rack and the truck. Sensors in each compartment provide overfill protection for each compartment - they will shut off the supply before it flows out over the top. The vapor recovery system is then connected to recover vapors displaced from empty tanks during loading. The vapors are returned to the refinery rather than being vented to the atmosphere creating an environmental hazard.

After connecting the correct loading arm to the appropriate truck compartment, the driver enters the product and amount to be loaded into the rack's metering system. This procedure is repeated until the entire truck has been correctly filled to within 95% of its rated capacity. Loading requires extreme care and attention. Drivers must give this procedure their utmost attention to avoid mixing product or overloading the truck - errors that are very easy to make even for seasoned veterans.

When loading is completed, a bill of lading is issued and a final check is made before leaving the terminal.

When entering a customer's property, care must be taken to position the truck properly next to the ground fills. The driver creates a protected workspace by wearing a high-visibility vest and using orange cones to mark off a safe delivery area. After removing the lids and unlocking the fill caps, a five-meter dipstick is used to measure the amount of product remaining in the underground storage tanks. Some of the more modern facilities have digital monitoring systems installed in the storage tanks, making the manual method unnecessary. It is the driver's responsibility to ensure that there is enough room in the storage tank for the planned delivery, and that the correct product is being delivered to the storage tank. A minor miscalculation here may result in a major spill or mix.
After connecting the vapor recovery equipment, the delivery fittings and hoses, the driver makes one last check before opening the discharge valve.

When the truck is empty the driver carefully stows the equipment and re-measures the tank, confirming that the amount in storage corresponds to the amount delivered. A quick signature and you're on your way.

Most deliveries will follow that plan. However, there are always wrinkles to the routine. Will the planned load actually fit in the available space? Are there cars parked on top of the fills? Did the station notify dispatch before beginning some minor construction? It's up to the driver to balance the priorities of the delivery against the hazards of attempting to proceed if the situation is potentially unsafe.

Hazards and Liability
We all complain about the high prices for gasoline and diesel fuel, but from a trucking point of view, fuel is a relatively low-value product. For example, at roughly $0.85 per liter for regular gas, even the typical eight-axle B-trains hauling 60,000 liters are only carrying a little over $50,000 worth of product, a far cry from the value of many general freight moves. The only way to think about the value of a load of fuel is the cost of something going wrong. Spill a load of gravel or lumber and the consequences are local and short term - upset a load of gasoline and it's a totally different matter.

Liability issues are a major concern for all trucking operations, but are even more crucial for carriers hauling dangerous goods. Insurance costs are astronomical and that's only for the premiums. The clean-up costs, fines, and bad publicity associated with even a minor spill can sink a marginal carrier.
Just how dangerous is hauling gasoline? Well, failure to understand the consequences of improper grounding and bonding can be fatal. Static electricity can cause sparks to jump between the loading arm and the trailers, for example, possibly causing a fire or explosion. And contrary to popular belief, empty trailers are more dangerous than loaded ones. The residual fuel vapors in an 'empty' tanker can explode on impact making the return trip the riskiest leg of the journey. A leak in the tanker's plumbing can cause fuel to be spilled on the road creating dangerous situations for other motorists. Add to that the regular driving hazards posed by heavy traffic in an urban environment and you can quickly appreciate why hauling fuel requires constant vigilance.

Still, the industry remains vigilant to threats beyond its ability to control. In the days and months following the 9-11 terrorist strike, industry officials have tightened entry procedures at refineries and distribution terminals. With a variety of security systems in place, many company officials are reluctant to discuss the details of these matters. Entry to petroleum handling sites is restricted only to drivers and other authorized personnel who possess gate passes with encoded personal identity information, and the passes are useless without the codes. These security precautions (and many others) have become even more sophisticated in recent years, because security is a matter that the oil companies and their carriers take very seriously.

So "what's in it" for the driver? With pay typically 15% to 20% above average, and many companies offering attractive benefits like pensions or profit-sharing plans, as well as safety bonuses, safe driving awards and various other incentives, fuel hauling is a job that will more than pay the bills. In return, you can expect regular training and certification sessions, skills upgrading programs, and constant performance monitoring.

The work is often local, or, depending on the part of the country where you work, regional. Drivers often rotate two or more to a truck so the company can keep the equipment moving. Twelve-hour shifts, and night and holiday work is part of the routine. Carriers expect drivers to be top-notch professionals, adhere to schedules, follow instructions and procedures, and to not take chances or make guesses.

Not everyone is cut out to haul fuel, but those that do are considered to be among the elite drivers in trucking. It's a highly organized specialty niche of the trucking business, and it makes sense for fuel carriers to look after their drivers - they have a considerable financial investment in a driver's training before a profitable wheel is even turned.

So if you've had enough of hurry-up-and-wait, consider fuel hauling for refreshing change of pace. While it's not exactly a stroll in the park, at least the customers are always glad to see you arrive.