A strong culture of safety stretches from the CEO in the corner office to the driver in the cab. - Photo: Jim Park

A strong culture of safety stretches from the CEO in the corner office to the driver in the cab.

Photo: Jim Park

Some of the top concerns trucking fleets have today  — rising insurance costs, “nuclear verdicts,” the driver shortage — could all be addressed through improving a company’s safety culture. Whether you pride yourself on operating a safe fleet or your CSA score needs some work, chances are you could benefit from a purposeful push to drive a culture of safety throughout your company.

I recently moderated a webinar to explore this topic. What is a “culture of safety,” anyway? Why is it important? How does a fleet go about bettering its safety culture? Our panel members were:

  • Doug Marcello, chief legal officer of Bluewire, a trucking defense attorney with a commercial drivers license. With Marcello & Kivisto LLC, he has represented trucking clients across the country.
  • Brandon Wiseman, owner and president of Trucksafe Consulting and a partner with Childress Law. As a transportation attorney, he has assisted motor carriers in developing and maintaining compliant and cutting-edge safety programs.
  • Chris Woody, CDS, director of safety at M&W Logistics Group in Nashville, Tennessee. He was named a 2020 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator because of his passion for safety.

What is a Culture of Safety?

Before we can talk about how to develop or improve your safety culture, first we want to understand what it is, as it’s become something of a buzzword. The concept is not new, but there’s a lot more attention to the topic these days, thanks to the above-mentioned challenges to the industry.

The earliest mention on the Truckinginfo website website is from 2003, when the Truckload Carriers Association’s Safety and Security Division Meeting featured former NASA Commander and Astronaut Rick Searfoss talking about how to build a company-wide safety culture and how to defend your program in the midst of tragedy. More recently, in 2018, a discussion of potential changes to the CSA program predicts that safety culture would replace crash risk in how the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration evaluates motor carriers.

Personally, I would define a culture of safety as involving attitudes, priorities, policies, procedures, throughout the entire organization – from the C-suite to the driver’s seat, across all functions, from operations to human resources to dispatch to maintenance and beyond.

What did our panelists say about it?

“I think everybody's got a safety culture,” said Woody. ”I think the question is, is it a good safety culture or a bad safety culture? And I think the measure for that is, to what level is safety the prevailing influence over all the other areas of your business?”

“It's easy to think of the term safety culture and consider that to be kind of meaningless business-speak,” said Wiseman.

He noted that FMCSA regulations don’t actually use the term, but instead refer more to “safety management controls.” However, he says of a culture of safety, “it’s the why behind the steps that a motor carrier takes to bolster their safety program. And it's the foundation on which all of those policies and procedures sit, and it's that foundation that the FMCSA expects to see when they come in and look at all your files. They're kind of looking at the violations as a symptom of something that's underlying, some problem with the safety management controls.”

“The starting point [for] the investigation of any case is going to be your safety culture."
– Doug Marcello

And in the courtroom?

“The starting point [for] the investigation of any case is going to be your safety culture,” Marcello said. “You know, one of my favorite definitions of integrity is what you do when no one's watching. It's doing the right things all the time, even if it works to your disadvantage. And I think that a lot that sums up the safety culture. It is your corporate, your company integrity, it's your reputation, it is doing those things that are for the promotion of safety, not just of the company, but for those of us who are at the highway with them.

“Nuclear verdicts don't really happen from the accident themselves. It's the other elements, and it's something the company has failed to do. And that starts with that safety culture.”

Why Should You Look at Your Safety Culture?

So how does having a strong safety culture help protect you and defend you from nuclear verdicts? (Or even from what Marcello calls “death by paper cuts,” increasing numbers of smaller settlements and verdicts that can add up.)

“Number one, if you have that safety culture there, if you have a proven history and program of safety, you can defuse a claim for punitive damages,” Marcello said. “So if your safety culture is in line, if you've got that all squared away, there is nothing there to punish.

"The second thing is this: These nuclear verdicts need a detonator, something that sets off that jury. And it is usually some bad act or something in the culture or the program of the safety of the company, that is going to be something that sparks that jury," Marcello said. "If you have developed your safety culture, if you have anticipated, monitored, and taken care of, removed those vulnerabilities, then you have protected yourself against the initial stages, the fuel that's needed for the detonation of the nuclear verdict."

“What carriers often fail to realize is that that conditional rating is essentially a tag that's on you now."
— Brandon Wiseman

Marcello said he advises people, "If you were on the witness stand, what would you like to tell that jury? What evidence would you like to present in terms of the exemplary safety program that you have? And develop that evidence now, develop that program now, because anything you do after the accident, that's just backfill at that point.”

But preventing devastating crashes and defending yourself in court are far from the only benefits of a strong safety culture. As Wiseman explained, a strong safety culture is the foundation when it comes to fleets being in compliance with safety regulations.

“What happens if you don't [have that foundation] is you start to see violations pile up and pile up and pile up – hopefully, it's just violations and not a crash," he said. "But eventually, those violations are going to come back to bite you in the form of a DOT audit. And when they come in and [determine] these violations are really just a symptom of there not being a strong foundation… then that's likely to result in a less than satisfactory safety rating, and probably civil penalties.”

An unsatisfactory safety rating can result in the fleet getting shut down. But even with a conditional rating, which allows a fleet to keep operating while it fixes the problems, “what carriers often fail to realize is that that conditional rating is essentially a tag that's on you now," Wiseman said. "It's something that your customers are going to be looking at. A lot of shipper customers will refuse to do business with carriers that are conditionally rated. And it's also what insurers look at when they're assigning your premiums.”

Woody often speaks at industry events about safety culture, and he contends that developing a strong culture of safety is simply the right thing to do – and it’s good for business.

“Drivers can see from a mile away when you're not honest with them." – Chris Woody

Part of that is a benefit when it comes to driver retention, he explained. Yes, it may be a challenge to get drivers on board, and it will mean turning drivers away who don’t meet your fleet’s safety standards. But in the long run, a true culture of safety will show drivers that you truly care about them – that it’s not just lip service.

“Drivers can see from a mile away when you're not honest with them,” Woody said. “So if you're going through the motions and just kind of halfway doing it, they're going to see it. But if you're all in, and you're all in for them, you're going to retain a ton of drivers. I'm happy to say right now we're full, and I have hired somebody else, I don't know what I'm going to put them in.”

Drivers are more likely to stay and more likely to refer other drivers to the company, he said. “Not to mention the reputation that you're now going to have in the industry. Your customers are going to refer you to other customers. There's a big, big advantage to doing things the right way and in keeping everybody safe out there on the road.”

To learn more about the importance of a culture of safety and our panelists’ suggestions in how to develop a stronger safety culture, click here to access the webinar on demand. This webinar is the first in a series of three dealing with safety. Installments two and three will look at creating a safe driver and using data to improve your safety program.

About the author
Deborah Lockridge

Deborah Lockridge

Editor and Associate Publisher

Reporting on trucking since 1990, Deborah is known for her award-winning magazine editorials and in-depth features on diverse issues, from the driver shortage to maintenance to rapidly changing technology.

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