Quality Carriers’ terminal owner Dale Rivers briefs team drivers George and Cindy Butler. That’s a hose adaptor Cindy’s holding, allowing two- and three-inch hoses to hook up.
Life in the cab is different when the load behind you is labeled as hazardous materials. Mishandled, it’s potentially dangerous, but good hazmat drivers are almost obsessive about the way they cross every “t” and dot every “i” in their safety procedures – every day, every load, every stop.
Hazmat hauling offers some of the best pay in the industry. But it’s well-earned money whether you are driving a van, a tanker or a flatbed, whether you’re hauling inhalants, flammables, explosives, corrosives or any other form of hazmat.
Willard Yocum, 59, and Judy Yocum, 54, team owner-operators with Landstar Ranger, haul some serious hazmat from our government – high explosives and weapons. The explosives need placarding; the weapons don’t.
“We don’t think of explosives as a stressful job,” Judy says. And indeed the Yocums aren’t the types to get nervous about their cargo – if you didn’t know what was in their van, you’d think it was cute, fluffy and harmless. “It’s our job to pick it up and deliver it just like any truckers. We have a lot of confidence in the people who pack what we haul; they know their business like we know ours. They pack it and label it and load and secure it.
“We’re just out there hauling a 48-foot van. We don’t tell people what’s inside, and we don’t talk about it on the CB. We know, and we don’t tell. It’s not only following the rules, it’s common sense. You never know who’s listening.”
While the load must be placarded with a hazmat sign, the Yocums do not advertise their haul any further. They drive team so they don’t have to stop for anything but fuel. “Anyway, we can’t stay more than four hours at a truckstop, and we can’t stay at all at the terminals [where] we go to pick up and deliver,” Judy says.
“We have to park 300 feet from a truckstop, so we’re always way in the back. One of us has to stay in the seat while the other goes into the truckstop. That’s why we got the big sleeper (there’s a 140-inch sleeper behind their Kenworth W900). By the time we went and got food and brought it back, it was cold. And now I don’t have to walk all that way either.”
The Yocums will celebrate 40 years of marriage this year (Judy was just 15 and Willard 20 when they wed, and they had grown up a mile apart), and they’ve been driving together since 1986. While explosives are now their cargo, the couple spent almost a year hauling equipment for the Secret Service and FBI so that when President Clinton arrived in a city, a mobile White House had been set up.
Hazmat loads require drivers to be very capable organizers and paperwork handlers. For example, when the Yocums arrive at a military base to pick up a load for another military base, they must provide their CDLs, provide security clearances (some loads require more than one) and show an updated medical card and bills of lading. Their tractor (including the sleeper and private drawers) and trailer may be searched, mirrors may be run under it to check the undercarriage, and the van may be X-rayed.
After 9/11 the military followed their rig until the duty was passed to a contracted company that may – or may not – follow each load. In some cases dummy trucks will leave on the same run as the Yocums.
Still, they enjoy their work, not thinking twice about the panic button they must hit if they are involved in any sort of accident, a button that will bring swarms of security racing to them. “With Ranger we get to take the loads we want, and we go where we want and to bases we like. Some are better than others,” says Willard. “At a military base their faces are always changing, so we are constantly meeting security people who don’t know us. But if a place gets to be too much of a hassle, we pick a load to somewhere else.”
Cream of the crop
Dale Rivers, 53, was a driver for years, but today he is the independent owner of three terminals for the nation’s largest tanker fleet, Quality Carriers of Tampa, Fla.
Rivers began hauling chemical tankers in 1978 and still drives hazmat. “Hazmat drivers are the cream of the crop,” he says, and he regularly delivers loads so he can keep up with what it’s like out there for his drivers. From behind the wheel, he can check out the parking situation, security, how things are working at the plants they deliver to and how the hours-of-service regulations can be used to best advantage.
Even more than other drivers, hazmat haulers need to stay alert, Rivers says.
“Being aware of your surroundings, on the road or when you are parked, loading or unloading, is a vital habit for any hazmat driver,” he says. “For example, if the same car is following you all day long, you should know it.”
George and Cindy Butler, from Milton, Fla., drive team for Quality Carriers regularly, and when’s she’s not driving with her husband, Cindy is dispatching.
“We’ve been driving together for six years, and George (52), has been driving for 31 years,” says 47-year-old Cindy Butler.
“We enjoy it, and we don’t think of it as dangerous work,” she says. “We think safety all the time, 24/7. Following safety procedures brings the risks down to zero. When you are out there with a properly handled hazmat load, it’s just another haul.”
George Butler has driven all sorts of trucks, from vans to flats, and most of his career has been in hazmat hauling, including a long stint hauling explosives in the 1970s. Since 1986 he’s hauled chemical tankers.
“Why hazmat? No particular reason,” he says. “I was a driving school instructor for seven years, teaching drivers how to handle hazardous waste and hazardous materials, and it’s something I know, I suppose. Sometimes it has its hassles and headaches, but that’s part of trucking, and you use your experience and professionalism to handle them. For example, there’s been a lot more scrutiny by the authorities since 9/11, and that takes time, but you just handle it.”
Butler says hazmat drivers are a special breed. “They’re not that much different from other drivers, but they are more cautious,” he says. “They have a little different mindset on the road that comes from being aware of your load and what’s going on around you.”
Hazmat drivers must respect their loads and practice more caution than with a regular load. “You do what you have to do, and you do it safely and correctly,” Butler says. “It’s drivers who take short cuts in this business who have short careers and end up getting hurt or fired.”
Plus, hazmat haulers have to deal with the same problems other drivers face.
Greg Bowlin, 45, hauls liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for Permagas out of Lake Stevens, near Everett, Wash., with a 26-wheeler – a tractor and a Rocky Mountain double, a 40-foot trailer followed by a pup trailer of 20 feet.
A CDL holder since 1979 and an LPG hauler for 16 years, Bowlin says the biggest concern he has on the road is one all hazmat drivers worry about – four-wheelers. “Drivers in four-wheelers rarely change their driving habits,” he says. “It seems to be a personal thing. They’ll come up next to me and look, and you can see they’re thinking ‘Holy smoke, that’s LPG,’ but then they continue to drive the same way.”
Getting it right
Jeff Weaver, 53, only finds out when he arrives to pick up a load if he will be hauling hazmat. A 27-year veteran trucker, he pulls a 53-foot dry van behind a 2003 Volvo for U.S. Xpress, carrying general freight that may suddenly include enough cigarette lighters, aerosol cans, paint or hair spray to become a hazmat load. That could happen to any U.S. Xpress driver, so the company requires all hires to have a hazmat endorsement. The company also requires drivers to pass tests every other year, so they can carry hazmat to the company’s satisfaction as well as the DOT’s.
“I’d say about one in 20 of my loads include hazardous material,” Weaver says. “I picked up some auto batteries recently, and I wasn’t sure whether I needed to placard or not. I checked with our safety department and found I didn’t need to.
“Making sure your placards are correct is vital. Put the right placard on but have the top and bottom parallel, you’re in trouble – it must be diamond-shaped to the viewer.”
Weaver says paperwork is generally in order, and shippers try just as hard as drivers to get it right. “Usually you’ll find something illegible before you’ll find a mistake; shippers do a good job. But computers back us up. Once we input information that this is a hazardous load, the computer gets to work, and we can’t leave unless all of the cross-checks check.”
A hazmat driver is required to carry his paperwork in a pocket on the door or on the seat beside him, somewhere emergency crews can reach and find out about the load if the driver is not there or not able to help. “If I’m driving, they have to be within reach. The placards will give you the category of hazardous material that’s being hauled; the bills of lading give precise details,” says Weaver. The drivers also carry three books: one describes emergency procedures, one contains the reference numbers assigned to each hazardous material and the other describes the classes of hazardous material by both number and name.
“You know my favorite thing about hazmat?” says Weaver. “It gets me rolling. If I’m sitting somewhere, and the only thing that will get me moving is a hazmat load, I can take it, and I will. And you have a better chance of finding a load if you have a hazmat endorsement.”
But routing can be a challenge to hazmat haulers. There are places a lot of hazmat loads are not allowed to go – through tunnels, over bridges, under bridges or through cities and towns, especially since 9/11. “You have to be very careful with your routing,” says Weaver. “A mistake can not only cost you time, there are big fines.”
While America’s biggest cities have long banned hazmat hauls from passing through or too close, smaller cities are now doing the same thing.
Today, computers help with the routing and pretty much everything else to do with hazmat.
“We also send Qualcomm tips every day to drivers,” says Rivers. “Just little things, maybe just reminders some days, information to help them be safer.”
Computers also help with all-important training. “Companies that deal with hazmat generally have a bit better training programs, more detailed programs,” George Butler says. “Quality Carriers has an excellent program, and they are constantly upgrading it and retraining us.”
Drivers are required to complete a computer-based driving course over time. “We want them to be better trained than just being at the level the DOT requires,” Rivers says. “When we hire drivers, we send them back to school and get a report on them, and we can see what sort of extra training they might need.”
When one of Rivers’ drivers arrives to pick up a load, the first thing he asks for is a chemical profile of that load, which comes in a Material Data Safety Sheet. “When we get that into a terminal, it goes off to Quality Carriers’ headquarters in Tampa for analysis, and they check such things as how the load will work in our tanks and how it matches the tanks’ linings. We make sure we have the right tanker for the load,” says Rivers. “And we make sure the driver knows exactly what he is hauling so he can handle it safely.”
Hazmat carriers have systems in place, generally computerized, that control loading and unloading. Drivers enter information from shippers and are not released to roll if the information does not match requirements. Some dispatchers predict a day not too far in the future when hazmat tractors can be disabled if information is not complete or correct.
Quality tracks the movement of every tractor and tanker. Different tanks carry different materials, and less than a third carry hazmat. Rivers’ yard in Whistler, Ala., has tanks that can be hauled to a port and loaded on ships for international delivery; fiberglass tanks that mostly carry bleach and can simply be unbolted and replaced when they age; tanks that hold 4,500 gallons and tanks that hold 7,200 gallons. The bigger tanks will carry lighter cargo, such as solvents, and the smaller tanks – which are heavier with thicker walls (3/16 inch thick) – are used for heavier, more volatile loads such as used acid, which can weigh as much as 15 pounds a gallon. Fully loaded, the tankers approach their 80,000-pound limit.
Hazmat tanker drivers can do their own tank inspections if they are certified by the DOT. At the Whistler terminal three people are used in every inspection: one on the floor of the yard, one on top of the tank and one in the tank. The person in the tank is dressed in protective gear – depending on what the tank carries – and harnessed so he can be pulled out in an emergency. No one ventures into the tank until electronic equipment has checked it to be sure it is safe to climb in.
All the precautions are necessary because everything with hazmat has to go just right. Mistakes can be too costly – in both dollars and human lives.
“I had to fire a driver recently after a customer called and said he didn’t wear his safety equipment while he was working at their plant,” Rivers says. “I once had a driver go into a sulphuric acid plant and go through his safety routine before doing anything else, as he was supposed to. One thing he has to do is physically check the safety showers. He found that the safety shower he was shown did not work. He asked to see another one. It didn’t work either. The third one did. That driver was using one of the plant’s hoses while he was loading, and it ruptured and he was covered in sulphuric acid. He had his personal protection equipment on (see Personal Protection Equiment at right), and he simply went to the shower that worked and never got a drop on him. Our safety routines work.”
Veteran tanker driver Willie Howell says a hazmat driver has to take control when he arrives to load or unload, whether he’s behind the wheel of a tanker, a flatbed or a van. “In my case, someone telling me ‘there’s a line to hook up to’ is not enough. I physically follow that line to make sure it goes where it is supposed to,” says the Texas driver, who has spent the past 36 years and 4 million ticket-free miles hauling hazmat tankers for Groendyke Transport, a bulk carrier based in Enid, Okla. “Someone at a plant handing me one of their hoses because it might be easier is not going to work. I will use my hoses even if it takes longer. And if someone tells me I can wait in the lunch room while I’m loaded or unloaded, I’ll say, ‘No, I will stay with the load.'”
Rivers has the same approach: “We have a rule that a driver can’t unload until he puts his hand on the valve. Then he has to get a signature that says it’s the right valve, that the tank is ready for the load and it has the capacity to hold the load.”
Rivers cites a case in Chicago that people in this industry are well aware of. In the ’70s, a driver arrived at a warehouse and hooked up to the wrong valve. A reaction between the two chemicals created a dangerous gas, killing everyone in the warehouse. Today, safety procedures – like locks on each fitting – have improved to prevent such things from happening.
But even parking can be a dangerous proposition if not done correctly. Like all good hazmat drivers, Howell is a careful parker because even a small collision can lead to a leak – and
At loading and unloading, safety procedures take precedence with hazmat. This Freightliner tanker rolls for Liquid Transport of Indianapolis.
that means time-consuming procedures used in cleanup and a lot of paperwork. “You can’t just leave it anywhere,” he says. “At a truckstop I try to get between two trucks from big companies with big reputations if I can. I want to try and get good drivers on either side of me.”
While some truckstops offer “safe havens” for hazmat haulers to park, Rivers would like to see more safe places for his drivers. “We should have our own parking area,” he says. “My own view is that the government should furnish it, give us someplace on the interstate to park where we know there is security around the clock. I was driving to Texas recently and parked, and in the middle of the night I hear this ‘boom.’ The van next to me had overheated brakes, and they blew a tire.”
But while secure parking is not always abundantly available, it’s up to the driver to find a safe place to park, Rivers says. “If I’m on the road, I’m not going to just take a slot at a truckstop or find a wide shoulder on an access ramp,” he says. “I have to be sure it is as safe a place as I can find. For example, at a truckstop I tell my drivers not to take the end of a row; there’s more chance of being hit if someone turns too tight around you. I also want them to look for places with security, and even when they have secured the tractor and the tank, to ask the security people to watch the rig while they are away from it.”
Hazmat hauling requires extra gear and extra caution, but the rewards are sweet. Rivers estimates that Quality Carriers company drivers can earn from $45,000 to $60,000, and owner-operators leased to the company can gross as much as $150,000. That pay comes from a high level of experience and knowledge.
“I have drivers so experienced that they know more than some of the DOT people they have to work with,” Rivers says.
Howell, 69, has been hauling hazmat literally half his life. “I guess about 90 percent of my loads have been hazmat,” he says. “To me pulling a tanker is a lot easier. I get loads I like, and I go to places I like. I used to haul all over the lower 48, but now I’m regional. I enjoy the work, and I intend to keep doing it for a couple more years. It can get hot and uncomfortable in the PPE in summer, but it’s really just for a [bit] while you lock up and load or unload.”
There is no reason to be wary of chemical tankers, George Butler says.
“If you follow procedures, they are not anything to be scared of,” he says. “The pay is good, so in fact they are hauls a lot of drivers should be thinking about.”
An Explosion of Music
So what do you do to relax after hauling high explosives all over the country, sometimes for weeks on end?
When they get home to Nauvoo, Ala., Willard and Judy Yocum slide back into the easy-going life of the rural South. And make music.
Willard and Judy Yocum may run out three weeks at a time so they can spend quality time at home with family and friends.
“Willard’s the musician; he has his guitar with him all the time,” says Judy. “And we have five daughters, and they all sing. I’m the one that doesn’t sing.”
The music all came together this July 4 at the Yocum property. A bluegrass band (with Willard joining in on guitar) played traditional tunes and gospel, and the Yocum girls sang gospel and an occasional Loretta Lynn song from the porch of the family home to a front lawn of friends, family, kids, dogs and a table overloaded with food and drink.
“This is why we do it,” says Judy. “To be able to come back here and love the place we live in and have family and friends here to share what we have and to listen to music. It’s wonderful to be able to see what you are working for and to enjoy it. A lot of folks never get to do that.”
Get the Latest Hazmat Information
The DOT’s Office of Hazardous Materials Training will publish a free, updated edition of the Hazmat Emergency Response Guidebook in September. This is the premier reference guide for hazmat shippers/carriers and first responders and has not been updated since 2000. It is primarily a guide to aid first responders in quickly identifying the specific or generic hazards of the material(s) involved in an incident and protecting themselves and the general public during the initial response phase of the incident.
For more information – and information on current hazmat regulations, guidelines or publications – visit the Hazmat Information Center at this site.
So You Want to Drive Hazmat?
Dale Rivers hires hazmat divers for Quality Carriers, the country’s biggest tank line, trains them, rides with them and knows what he wants when it comes to hiring them. So what does he look for besides two years’ minimum experience?
“I look for a driver who is neater than normal, maybe even a little bit compulsive about his appearance. That’s the sort of driver who will also keep his paperwork and hoses just as much in order as himself.”
“I Armor All the floors of my trucks when I drive; I like my truck that clean. If a driver has his truck looking like new, I know he’ll take care of all of his equipment. I got a guy who drives for me that takes his shoes off before he gets into the cab and drives in special clean shoes that never leave the cab.”
“If he respects me and the people around him, he’ll respect the customer and other drivers on the road. He’ll probably drive defensively.”
“I think someone working to support their family is someone who probably has a better work ethic, is more dedicated to his work.”
“I’ll go through every page of a driver’s history before I hire them. I don’t necessarily want a driver with nothing but hazmat on his record. I look at character first because I can train someone to drive hazmat if I know they have the right work ethic and attitude on the job. Those things are more important than just having hauled hazmat.”
New Security Rules for Hazmat Hauling
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) issued a final rule imposing heightened security requirements for hazardous materials shippers and carriers. RSPA’s Office of Hazardous Materials Safety is the federal authority responsible for assuring the safe and secure commercial movement of hazardous materials by all transportation modes.
“The security of hazardous materials is an important public issue,” says Samuel G. Bonasso, RSPA acting administrator. “Under this rule, shippers and carriers of certain highly hazardous materials must develop and implement security plans, including mandatory security training for employees.”
Security plans must identify potential security risks and measures to protect shipments of hazardous materials covered by the rule. Companies are permitted to tailor security plans to specific circumstances and operations, and measures may vary with the level of threat. However, all security plans must include personnel, access and en route security measures. Under the rule, employees responsible for the transport of hazardous materials must be trained on how to be aware of security risks and enhance security.
RSPA has public responsibilities for the safe, reliable and secure movement of hazardous materials to industry and consumers by all transportation modes, including the nation’s pipelines, rapid response to emergencies by government agencies, training of transportation safety professionals and applying science and technology to meet national transportation needs.
Carriers planning to haul certain highly hazardous materials must have a special safety permit, beginning Jan. 1.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said it is requiring the special permit because certain materials would be more dangerous in crashes or terrorist attacks.
The permit will be required for carriers hauling certain types and amounts of radioactive materials, explosives, toxic inhalant materials and compressed or refrigerated liquid methane or natural gas.
The FMCSA estimated that the safety benefit to the U.S. economy resulting from fewer accidental releases of hazardous materials alone will be $3.7 million a year.
“This regulation will promote the safe and secure transportation of the most dangerous hazardous materials,” says FMCSA Administrator Annette Sandberg.
Under guidelines outlined in a final rule issued in July, the nation’s approximately 3,100 hazmat carriers must meet all federal operational, safety and security standards and must communicate regularly with drivers by phone or other electronic device. Carriers with less-than-satisfactory safety ratings will be prohibited from transporting the materials requiring special permits.
To prevent unnecessary interruptions of commerce, temporary safety permits may be issued to carriers without safety ratings for a period of 180 days pending the outcome of a compliance review.
The FMCSA is also implementing a process to deny, suspend and revoke safety permits in this final rule. Safety permits will be denied if a carrier does not have a satisfactory safety rating. Permits will be suspended or revoked from carriers failing to comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, Hazardous Materials Regulations or similar state requirements.
This final rule is on the Internet at this site.
Personal Protection Equipment
A driver’s PPE (personal protection equipment) is a vital part of his everyday work. With most carriers it is checked regularly, and at some carriers a driver can lose his job if it is not all in order. Not every piece of equipment is used every day because the load determines what is required. PPE includes slickers, gloves, face shields, safety glasses, goggles, hard hats, Scott Air Pack (used by firefighters and emergency crews to breathe in smoke-filled areas or in contaminated air) and rubber boots.
Tanker fleet Quality Carriers stopped issuing safety glasses and replaced them with safety goggles so that drivers would always have their eyes enclosed when working with chemicals. The company also checks drivers’ PPE every 60 days. It must be in perfect working order or it is replaced. “We don’t take risks,” says Quality Carriers terminal-owner Dale Rivers. “I’ll give you an example. We won’t use recaps, only virgin rubber. No risks.”
Veteran hazmat hauler Willie Howell knows from experience that wearing the PPE can make a difference. “I was in California and hooked up to a steel line,” the Texas driver says. “The guy wants to put 40 or 50 pounds of pressure on to unload me, but that’s too much. I tell him do it at 20 pounds. We hooked up, but my load wasn’t getting through to the tank. He wanted to up the pressure, but I said no, 20 pounds is enough; there must be something in the steel pipe. He went to check, and that’s when my external valve blew. I was right there and shut off the internal valve, so there was only minimal damage and a minimal spill.”
Like all good hazmat tanker drivers, Howell was wearing his PPE and was able to wash off the liquid that had splashed all over him and his face shield.