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You need to build a safety culture, but it takes a lot of work: TCA panelists

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It takes time, but two executives who have done it said it is possible–and necessary–to instill safety as a “core value” in your trucking company.

That was the title of the discussion at the Truckload Carriers Association annual meeting near Orlando earlier this month: Safety as a Core Value. In the lunch discussion on the second day of the event, Wendell Erb, President and CEO of Canada-based Erb International, and Greer Woodruff, senior vice president for safety and security and driver personnel at J.B. Hunt, talked about their own companies’ efforts to implement those sets of values.

Woodruff, a long-time veteran of J.B. Hunt, said his own company’s change in philosophy began 20 years ago, and it was needed to replace a casual approach toward safety. “We felt like our main objectives were growth and utilization, and that was not aligned well with a commitment to safety,” Woodruff said. “Our objectives now are growth and utilization but within the constraints of a safety culture and a commitment to taking care of our people and sharing the roads with the public.”

One key aspect to that switch in culture was trying to get the message across that safety was the job of everyone, not just a designated department. In the case of J.B. Hunt, the view was that safety was something that the Human Resources department did, “and that operations and safety were at conflict most of the time,” he said. “It frustrated them and it frustrated us.”

But the establishment of a “safety culture” at J.B. Hunt put it under operations but with the understanding that it wasn’t just the responsibility of operations; it was everybody’s concern. “Once we moved the ownership to operations, and they became accountable, that was a big difference to get this culture adopted,” Woodruff said.

The moderator of the discussion, Brian Fielkow, the CEO of Jetco Deliver, concurred. If the issue of safety continually gets “punted” to a safety department, “nothing is going to happen on a long-term basis.” Only if operations has the primary responsibility can that culture of safety take root, he said.

But those are just management changes. What are the cultural changes needed to implement safety as a bedrock principle?

Woodruff gave a standard line that can be heard for anybody or anything trying to make a shift in its approach: “One step was admitting we had a problem, or acknowledging what some might want to call an opportunity.”

And it did start from the top. Woodruff said the incumbent CEO and president at that time saw that the cost of accidents was rising, and the lax culture was contributing to turnover. “There was a total cost of the accident, and we didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem,” he said.

As Erb said: “If you ever want to mess up your day, just have a crash in your company.” You can make plans to run the company and pursue other initiatives, but if one of your vehicles crashes, Erb said, “it just wipes out an entire week or month.”

Erb said the focus of their most recent attempt to implement a safety culture was more recent than the decades-old shifts at J.B. Hunt that Woodruff discussed. The key issue for Erb’s safety push? Distracted driving.

“We determined that distracted driving was a cause of a lot of our problems,” he said. A mandatory driver program on the issue was begun, “and sometimes the drivers would grudgingly go to the meetings and think, this is for the other guys. They’d come out and say that this is the most powerful safety meeting I’ve ever been to.”

The buy-in doesn’t just need to happen within the company, Woodruff said. Getting customers to sign on as well is important. “They might want to try to push the envelope, but we don’t want our drivers to do that at the expense of safety,” he said. Providing those customers with data can help avoid that, and show them that J.B. Hunt won’t compromise safety, and customer desires can still be met.

The culture though isn’t all words; Greer noted some firm steps that can be taken. One was implementing a “hair test” to determine usage of drugs, and not just with drivers. Greer said operations staff also had been tested and in some cases failed. (J.B. Hunt was one of several companies that recently asked the FMCSA to allow just hair testing in place of urine testing.)

But ultimately, nothing can change no matter how much testing or rules are implemented if management doesn’t believe in the program. Woodruff talked about two separate operations manager at J.B. Hunt who as he said, “didn’t buy in” at first. He held frank conversations with one of them to try to bring him into the new culture and eventually, Woodruff said, “he became one of the strongest safety people we had.”

The second manager left the company about three weeks after the conversation. As Woodruff said, “Both outcomes were good.”

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.