Behind the Placard

| May 01, 2002

When Russ Cramer hands new owner-operators the hazmat book, they sometimes act as if the book itself were toxic. “The look on their faces often says, ‘Oh, no,’” says Cramer, who supervised contractors at Umthun Trucking of Eagle Grove, Iowa. “You can just tell they’d rather not deal with it.” That wasn’t the case with Umthun owner-operator Henry Shriver. “I’ve talked to a lot of people who won’t touch a hazmat load, but boy, I jump on them,” says Shriver, a former Overdrive Trucker of the Month. Sure, placarded materials can be dangerous, but so can everything else on the road, Shriver says. “The diesel you put into your fuel tank this morning is dangerous. The bottom line is, if you have that endorsement, you’re going to have more money in your pocket.”

Many truckers shun hazmat the way Dracula shuns garlic. But most loads placarded as hazardous material contain not bombs and nuclear waste but everyday stuff, from hairspray and roofing materials to fertilizer and Coca-Cola ingredients. That’s why so many general-freight fleets require hazmat endorsements.

Having arranged training, licensing and insurance coverage that would be tough for an independent to manage, fleets offer leased owner-operators a share of the growing hazmat-hauling industry. Some offer higher pay for hazmat loads. But veterans say the best reason to get your endorsement and learn about hazmat is safety: Even if you aren’t hauling it, the truck in the lane beside you likely is. “Knowing more about this stuff never hurts you,” Cramer says.

Umthun paid extra for hauling hazmat – roughly a third better than a comparable nonhazmat load, the difference between 90 cents a mile and $1.20. Umthun ceased operations March 1, its business now handled by Decker Truck Lines, Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Owner-operators Michael and Jean Flintom of Lancing, Tenn., are leased to a fleet that specializes in hazmat, Tri-State Motor Transit of Joplin, Mo. “Hazmat pays a little better than standard freight,” Michael Flintom says. “Certainly it’s been very profitable for us.” In a typical year, he estimates, he and his wife net around $80,000 from a gross of $180,000 to $200,000.

Whether hazmat loads pay more than nonhazmat loads often depends on how much of the carrier’s business is hazmat. It’s definitely a question to raise when you’re shopping for general-freight carriers, says Bill Johnson of Anchorage, Alaska. He and his father drove many placarded loads as an owner-operator team leased first to Waggoners Trucking of Billings, Mont., then to Lynden Transport of Anchorage.

“With Lynden, we got a flat rate that was higher than average no matter what we were hauling, but we didn’t get any extra for hazmat loads,” says Johnson, who now works for APC Natchiq, an Anchorage oil-service company. “Fleet to fleet, sometimes it’s a higher rate for hazmat, sometimes not, but it’s nothing I’d want to bet my paycheck on.”

Being hazmat-ready makes you money in the long run because you’re able to take on a wider variety of loads, says Danny Lowis of Waverly Hall, Ga. An owner-operator leased to Liquid Transport of Indianapolis, he hauls tankers of agricultural chemicals.

“We wind up hauling more and more placarded loads,” Lowis says. “Most of the stuff we haul isn’t dangerous, but some of it is very dangerous. If you get a set system of things to check, you can stay pretty safe. You need to be patient and not get in any hurry. It’s a lot to watch, but it’s a pretty good job.”

Hauling hazmat is more time-consuming and complicated than hauling regular loads. The job begins by verifying completion of the shipper’s paperwork, which can easily run 40 pages or more, Flintom says.

The hazmat hauler has to conduct more rigorous pretrip inspections, making sure, for example, that all the items are secured and not leaking. Once under way, federal law requires him to check tires every two hours. Around cities, moreover, hazmat haulers are limited to certain routes and certain times of day. “You have to plan ahead,” Lowis says.

And since Sept. 11, they spend more time talking to law-enforcement officers than other truckers do. “We get stopped a lot more,” Lowis says. “You can count on it at just about every scale, and even riding down the road, they’ll pull you, just to see what you’re up to. If you’re going to try running ahead of your log book, you’re definitely going to get caught.”

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