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Freight Focus: The Flatdeck World

by Jim Park

There are tougher jobs in trucking, but you'd have to look long and hard to find them. Hauling a flatdeck means, at least, that the driver is responsible not only for getting the load to destination on time but also for keeping it on the trailer during the trip. Deck freight doesn't automatically stay where the shipper puts it. Making sure it does is the driver's job, and that's a big responsibility.

A more convoluted set of regulations than those covering cargo security would be difficult to find. And the big problem is the lack of consistency across the many jurisdictions in North America. What's legal in one may not be acceptable in the next.

Drivers are always trying to balance the requirements with the practicality of keeping the freight on the truck. Some loads don't easily lend themselves to chains or straps, while others, like thin slabs of slate, will tear a tarp to shreds in 50 miles. Bundles of brick, when they're not shrink-wrapped, tend to fall apart when the bricks start "walking" out of the stack. And when that happens, the driver is the guy with the smoking gun in his hand. He's responsible for ensuring that the almost unavoidable is avoided.

The Freight

Use your imagination. Whatever won't walk, drive or pour itself onto a truck usually winds up on a flatdeck. The most common commodities, steel and lumber, make for a fairly predictable day's work but both present special challenges. Lumber neatly bound into bundles is fine, except when they're stacked to 13.5 ft in the air or wrapped in very slippery plastic sleeves. Ever tried standing on top of an ice-covered, wrapped lift of lumber with a tarp in a high wind? That adds an entirely new dimension to the word 'terror'.

Steel, of course remains a challenge because of its unwillingness to stay put, especially in an emergency situation. Coils and plates are risky because of their shape and weight, while structural steel is difficult to secure properly without damaging the product. Then there's every steel-hauler's pet peeve - tarping. There's always some rusty old piece of hardware that somebody wants tarped, even though it's been sitting out in a field for months.

No discussion of flatdeck freight would be complete without mentioning machinery. Where do you start tying the darn thing down? When the tie-down points are clearly marked, the driver is away to the races, but that isn't always the case. Tommy Vachon, a young driver who has just begun to haul flatdeck, says he won't chain anything until the shipper tells him exactly how he wants it done.

"These machines have to be secured properly," Vachon says. "I don't want to risk damaging the machine. That's why I always ask first."

Vachon's approach is a sound one, until there's a conflict between what the shipper wants and what the regulations demand. Getting caught in the crossfire is another occupational hazard faced by the flatdeck hauler.

Chapter and Verse

If you want to get a couple of veteran deck haulers started, just mention load-securement regulations, or should we say the lack of them. Work has been underway for over five years now to develop the first truly international standards, which may or may not ever become real regulations. It's such a patchwork now that any improvement can only be welcomed, because as a flatdeck hauler, you're expected to comply with the rules, whatever they happen to be - and wherever you happen to be.

The forthcoming international load securement standards are already under the gun, as both truckers and shippers have suggested that they're too onerous. In many cases, they're at odds with what is considered standard industry practice. But that's why they're being examined from an international perspective. What is standard practice in Manitoba might not fly in Georgia.

From a driver's point of view, once the new standard is adopted, the task of complying should become a great deal easier, but there will be plenty of catching up to do as far as learning the new rules is concerned. It'll be like relearning the trade from the ground up.

And learning the flatdeck business by trial and error can be an expensive proposition. Fred Busch says the cost of a ticket for an improperly restrained load can easily exceed $400. His solution is to over-do whatever he isn't sure of. Busch talks about a recent exchange he had with the New York State DOT.

"I had to pick up a load of used truck parts," he says. "Axles, engines, transmissions and a cab. It was a dog's breakfast. It took me three hours to get everything chained down properly." And when he drove around the corner, guess who was waiting for him? "The DOT guys, I discovered later, wait there all the time. It's a gold mine for them. They told me hardly anybody gets past them without a ticket for improper loading."

If there were a single trait in all successful flatdeck drivers, in Busch's opinion it would have to be patience. "Obviously, the ticket should be the least of your worries," he says. "The first concern is to keep the freight on the truck, and avoid damaging anything. If it takes three hours to load it properly, so be it. That's the flatdeck business."

Learning the Ropes

According to independent operator Mike Smith, the flatdeck sector is one of the few remaining entrepreneurial endeavors where the small, truly independent owner-operator can really prosper. Smith has been servicing a few clients of his own for several years despite numerous attempts by some of the larger carriers to step on his toes. "I handle some difficult freight, and I guess I do it well enough to keep [my customers] coming back," Smith says, with just a hint of modesty. He recently relocated to the Vancouver area, and is now faced with having to redevelop the thriving business he once had in southern Ontario.

"The truth is, this is the kind of business where a personal touch can make a difference," he says. "The care I take in loading and securing the freight is pretty obvious, and that seems to keep me that notch ahead of my competitors."

When it comes to bidding on work, Smith's philosophy is simple enough: "I can do it right, the first time." You should forgive Smith for his apparently exaggerated opinion of what he does. He's simply more forthcoming than many other owner-operators are. He's also been around long enough to see many of the people who have tried to underbid his business go out of business themselves. He credits many of those same people with teaching him the skills he's honed so well over the years. "In the beginning, it was all a matter of keeping my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut," he said. "That's the only way to learn anything in life."

The nature of hauling flatdeck is that pretty well every load is different. So you can't always depend on experience to get you through a bind. Success is mostly a combination of experience and common sense, neither of which come easily.

Young Tommy Vachon is in a good position to learn a lot about the flatdeck business. He, like Smith once did, works with a bunch of veterans. "They can teach me a lot, and I'm certainly willing to learn," Vachon says.

He currently works for Express Gosselin from Victoriaville, Que., hauling Bombardier products, mostly into the U.S. "In the spring and summer, we haul Seadoos, and in the fall and winter, it's these grooming machines," Vachon says. "What I learn here, I can apply to other loads. I'm always learning, and I like that."

Flatdeck hauling is such a broad category that it would be impossible to cover it all off in a single story. highwaySTAR will be examining other aspects of the flatdeck business such as oversize/overweight, steel, lumber and other specialties over the coming months. Keep an eye on this spot. You just might see somebody you know.

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