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.”

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who won’t touch a hazmat load, but boy, I jump on them.”
– Henry Shriver

Hazmat haulers are subject to fines that other truckers needn’t worry about, Lowis says. “If you have a flat tire with a placarded load, you have to sit right there. Move the truck at all, and you’ll get a fine. If your placard falls off as you go down the road, that’s a fine, too, $75 to $125 – even if you had no way of knowing it fell off, which seems a little hard to me.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently announced a crackdown on truckers who display placards that say “Have a nice day” or “Drive safely.” You can get cited even for displaying a hazmat placard on an empty trailer.

Cramer doesn’t begrudge the growing complexity of the regulations and the growing number of materials classified as hazmat, saying, “We’re all safer for it.” But the frequent changes make continuous training all the more important, and any contractor who isn’t getting it needs to speak up and tell his carrier, Cramer says.

“I’ve had drivers, after working for two or three large carriers, tell me, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever known how to use this hazmat book.'”

Cramer refers to the Hazardous Materials Compliance Pocketbook, a 560-page paperback, in which you can look up any hazardous material to find its classification and placard, as well as any special handling required. Widely distributed in hazmat-training classes, it’s $3.70 a copy from J.J. Keller & Associates of Neenah, Wis., www.jjkeller.com. Keller also sells, for $3.75 a copy, a pocket edition of the federal Emergency Response Guidebook, which gives step-by-step instructions for first responders in case of hazmat accidents or spills.

Federal law requires hazmat haulers to know how to recognize, identify and handle hazmat packages and how to report a problem, which they must do at the first sign of trouble. Violators are subject to civil penalties of up to $27,000 and, in some cases, criminal penalties of up to $500,000 and five years in prison. Truckers must receive training at least once every three years.

Federal law also allows independent owner-operators to do their own hazmat training, so long as all other training requirements are met. But leased hazmat haulers say they wouldn’t consider hauling hazmat as an independent. Sky-high insurance premiums would be the biggest problem, followed by the trouble and expense of getting legal in every state of operation. “I don’t see how an individual could do all that and afford it,” Lowis says.

Johnson has hauled everything from Exxon Valdez oil-spill sludge to a van full of 500-pound bombs and – on a run from Texas to Newfoundland – a 50-pound box of nitroglycerin, and he admits to having a few uneasy moments.

“Sure, you start thinking about that load when your tires get to spinning, or you start sliding backward, or a moose jumps out in front of you,” Johnson says. “But everything you haul is hazmat, depending on the circumstances. When that load shifts, you’ve got a hazardous load. I treat everything the same, with as much care as possible. Even in summertime up here in Alaska, I drive like I was on ice.”

Whatever they’re hauling, all owner-operators can and should get a hazmat endorsement on their CDL, Shriver says. Many truckers agree. An estimated 2.5 million of the 9.5 million CDL holders have the endorsement.

“That load you have to pass up because you don’t have the endorsement might make a big difference in your income for that week,” Lowis says.

“What you’re hauling today may not be on the hazardous list, but it might be soon,” Cramer says. “You need to be prepared. Put out the effort, get the knowledge, put the hazmat on your license. It could save your life someday.”


THE NINE CLASSES OF HAZMAT

Class 1
Explosives

Class 2
Gases. Includes flammable, compressed and poisonous

Class 3
Flammable and combustible liquids

Class 4
Flammable solids

Class 5
Oxidizers and organic peroxides

Class 6
Poisons. Includes infectious substances

Class 7
Radioactive materials

Class 8
Corrosives

Class 9
Miscellaneous

WHAT’S AROUND THE BEND?

Security. The ongoing post-Sept. 11 scrutiny of hazmat haulers is here to stay. The federal anti-terrorism law President Bush signed in the fall mandates criminal background checks, but at press time the U.S. Department of Transportation had not announced how that would work. In the meantime, states continue to issue and renew hazmat endorsements as usual. More federal and state laws affecting how hazmat haulers do business may be on the way.

Demand. Most hazmat loads are agricultural or industrial chemicals, and the ongoing long-term demand for those is a safe bet. “Chemicals go into just about everything that’s made,” says owner-operator Danny Lowis. Yet the short-term demand for such material fluctuates with the rest of the manufacturing economy, so hazmat isn’t necessarily an insulator against hard times. “Freight has been awful slow since Sept. 11 with hazmat, as with everything else across the board,” Lowis says. “The last two years, it’s been harder on us to make a living on it.” Haulers of general freight, on the other hand, will find hazmat increasingly hard to avoid. “If you’re working out of Louisiana, for example, with all those chemical plants, you’re going to be hauling hazmat,” says former owner-operator Bill Johnson.

Gold in Nevada? President Bush’s approval of a long-controversial plan to ship all the nation’s nuclear waste to a central repository in Nevada promises an eventual bonanza for the hazmat-hauling industry, as most of the waste will be shipped by truck. But the plan has many hurdles to overcome, and when shipments begin in 2010 or later, the government is likely to contract with a limited number of cariers.

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