Fleet Safety Winners Talk Culture, Training, and Technology

November 1, 2022

Three CGA member companies were recognized earlier this year with Fleet Safety Excellence Awards, which honor the lowest total vehicle accident frequency rates in their categories. The awards are sponsored by Linde PLC.

Roberts Oxygen Company was recognized for its cylinder gas transportation of less than 3 million miles per year, and for its bulk gas transportation of less than 20 million miles per year. Linde PLC won the award for cylinder gas transportation of more than 3 million miles per year, while American Air Liquide Holdings, Inc., took home the award for bulk gas transportation of more than 20 million miles.

Safety is important for the industry, especially when considering the many types of commercial vehicles on the road. “Looking at compressed gas, we all have the same risks and issues because of the nature of the business in which we operate,” said Jerry Freeman, Senior Director of Transportation for American Air Liquide Holdings, Inc. “Our industry, as a whole, has unique challenges, from handling and transporting hazardous materials to knowing how to respond in emergency situations. It’s often very risky for drivers to operate on a public highway. With increasing traffic and distracted driving on the rise, transporting 10,000 gallons of hazardous materials behind you, that increases the concern.”

Given the heightened risks, it’s all the more important that safety considerations are at the forefront. These award winners showcase what they’re doing right.

Setting the Tone

Improving safety on the road starts with setting the culture. “Safety is extremely important to the company,” said Alysia Portner, Safety and Compliance Manager at Roberts Oxygen Company. “We value our employees and the public as well. It’s something we discuss daily and weekly with all employees. We ask them to look at every person that they interact with as a potential customer for Roberts Oxygen. We want them to have the best impression.”

With more than 160 trucks on the road on any day, incidents will inevitably happen. When they do, Portner and team will dig into the details, looking for trends. “We look at trends, such as backing up versus moving forward, to see where we need to focus. We’ll target the top three to five things on our incident reports and make those a primary focus.”

When Roberts started seeing more frequent incidents when backing up, they put together a training program that requires drivers to walk around their vehicle before backing up or pulling into a tight space. The program is a way of “making sure there are no objects blocking their way, or nothing sticking out from their trucks,” Portner said. “Drivers would say, ‘I’ve been to this site a dozen times.’ That’s OK, we understand you’re very familiar with this customer. Taking 30 seconds to get out and walk around your truck before backing up can make all the difference.”

And what a difference it made. Reportable accidents “have gone down significantly,” Portner said, tallying about eight in 2021 – with only one the fault of a Roberts driver.

That’s not to say that Roberts’ drivers are perfect. John Gurcsik, Roberts’ Vice President of Operations, said drivers in metropolitan areas face many challenges. “A lot of our routes are in cities like D.C. There are many one-way streets and a lot of tight spaces for our drivers to navigate.”

Letters or phone calls from pedestrians and other drivers are investigated and customer input about driver habits is regularly sought. Sometimes Portner will hop in a vehicle and follow a Roberts driver to evaluate whether they’re maintaining proper distances and signaling. “That means sharing positive feedback, too.” Portner said. “I was following one of our vehicles and he was cut off. He was not aggressive. He backed off. I let him know that I’d seen that.”

But a safety team can’t be everywhere at once to see every infraction or positive action. That’s when data comes into play.

“The data will tell you what to do,” Gurcsik said. “Also get in the trucks with the drivers. They’ll share with you some of their frustrations. You’ll learn a lot about the good things that they’re doing. We also share best practices between all of our branches.”

Drivers who have higher incident rates will get in-vehicle coaching through ride-alongs. “After a lot of focused coaching, performance significantly improves,” Gurcsik said. “You get a feel for the habits that they’ve picked up,” Portner said. “It gives you the opportunity to on-the-spot coach them.”

Roberts also uses fleet monitoring tools, including a GPS system. Drivers are immediately contacted if they are flagged for going over the speed limit. “It’s important to provide feedback to our drivers,” Portner said.

Safety isn’t just about what happens when the wheels are turning, though. Roberts’ drivers are coached on loading trucks safely at the plant and in delivering to the customer. “Driving is a big part of the job but loading and unloading cylinders and welding supplies is a really big part of safety,” Gurcsik said. “We always want to provide safe and excellent customer service.”

“Driving is a big part of the job but loading and unloading cylinders and welding supplies is a really big part of safety,” Gurcsik said. “We always want to provide safe and excellent customer service.”

Back to Basics

With more than 6,000 drivers in the organization and more than 1,000 locations across the United States, American Air Liquide Holdings, Inc., covers over 150 million miles per year.

“Safety culture drives results and shows the current state of affairs of our overall program, not just how it relates to driver and employee safety,” Freeman said.

A road safety awareness campaign—aimed at management in 2022—is underway. “We’re trying to bring back the basics and make sure to remind everyone what those basics are,” Freeman said. “There are a lot of things that the manager is held accountable for: addressing driver behavior, making sure equipment is well maintained and repaired, making sure the driver is fully fit and qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle. This awareness is trying to bring that back to light.”

Drivers get plenty of training, too, which, when taken with the management awareness program, “translates to improvements on a lot of fronts.”

Preventable vehicle accident (PVA) rating is a key performance indicator for American Air Liquide. In-cab cameras have made a positive impact on road safety performance, Freeman believes. “We’ve invested in this technology that is designed to address and correct negative driver behaviors such as not wearing a seatbelt, texting or using the phone, falling asleep at the wheel. We’re able to be proactive in getting that behavior corrected.”

Currently, about 50 percent of the fleet has a camera in the cab. Already, some business units where installation has been completed have shown a 20-30 percent improvement in PVAs over the previous year compared to regions without these cameras. “When we get the rest of the organization installed with these cameras, that will tell a bigger story,” Freeman said.

Training is another important component. American Air Liquide uses the Smith System Driver Improvement Institute and its own in-house programs to enhance driver training. “With COVID, we were faced with looking at alternatives to our classroom and face-to-face meetings. We’ve been able to adapt by doing webinars and virtual meetings with the field organization on the management side.”

Given the driver shortage that is impacting the entire industry, it becomes all the more important to have a solid training plan in place, Freeman said. “As new drivers come in, it’s important to get in front of them and establish the safety culture early on. That’s key for the local manager to engage the driver, perhaps more than ever.”

Tech Tools: Worth the Investment

At Linde PLC, technology has been a key factor in improving safety, along with a coordinated training program.

“We continue to add new technology to our vehicles as it becomes available,” said Anthony Parente, Linde’s Associate Director of Distribution Safety. “We added lane departure, blind spot indicators, collision warning system, roll stability system that will help prevent roll overs, and camera systems to help drivers in backing.”

The company uses technology that identifies driver behaviors not following defensive driving techniques and send in cab alerts. “We use the information for coaching the drivers to be more defensive drivers,” Parente said.

The company also requires drivers take an annual defensive driving course, something that previously had only been required every three years.

“We believe that the changes we’re seeing are through continuous training,” Parente said. “As long as we continue to deliver that message and keep it fresh in the driver’s mind, we get better results.”

Linde has seen its preventable accident rates drop each of the last five years. “Our ultimate goal is ZERO accidents,” Parente said.

The technology and training work together. If the vehicle’s monitoring system flags an issue—such as following too closely—the driver can be sent back for a refresher on defensive driving training, Parente said. “Sometimes it’s difficult for our drivers maintain safe distance, especially in larger cities like New York City, when cars are taking that space. We understand that.”

Seven years ago, the company transitioned to regional trainers; each new driver spends a minimum of two weeks with a trainer “going over policies, procedures and material handling techniques,” said Mike Farris, Senior Plant Manager.

While two weeks is the typical training timeframe with the regional trainer, Farris said the company will be flexible. “When a driver comes back to their home location, after two weeks with the trainer, he or she is still with a driver for a couple of weeks until the employee and supervisor are comfortable with them on their own.  We have a structured program that all regional trainers deliver the same training, in the same way. It doesn’t matter if you’re in New Jersey or California you’re getting the same training.”

It’s that attention to detail that has made all the difference for these safety winners.

Does your company excel at promoting safety? The Compressed Gas Association’s annual Safety Awards Program recognizes the dedication to safety exhibited by member companies and individuals. Specific information regarding the criteria for these awards, the procedures for submitting nominations, and the awards forms may be accessed here.

Award winners will be announced at CGA’s Annual Meeting this April. For more information about CGA’s awards programs, contact Jill Thompson, CGA’s Safety Awards Program Administrator, at jthompson@cganet.com or 703-788-2720.