As trucks and trailers become more complex, we need to deliberately apply real skills and not...

As trucks and trailers become more complex, we need to deliberately apply real skills and not simply rely on "common sense" at the risk of our safety and the safety of those around us.

Photo: Jim Park

One defining characteristic of many trucking people has long been their 'cavalier' attitude. Much less so in 2019 compared to years gone by, but it's still a factor. Don't sweat the details, just get it done.

Old-time trucking folks have always known what was good enough and gone with it. Baling wire, duct tape, those were key tools for drivers – metaphorically for sure but also literally sometimes -- when they were forced to play mechanic on the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere. Skills learned on farms, more often than not, and the repairs were usually sort of OK. For a little while at least.

More than a few mechanics adopted such low-tech saviors too in a pinch, no doubt. But all that was back in the day. Way back when they could afford to be cavalier, or so they thought.

Training? What training? They learned on the job.

Rules and regs? What rules? What regs? They knew what they were doing, so they said leave us alone. There weren't many controls anyway. And since the inspection and enforcement element was pretty much non-existent, they got away with stuff that would land a guy in jail these days. Or at the very wrong end of a liability lawsuit. Or both.

"Safety in the shop or on the road was strictly a matter of common sense back in the day."

Safety in the shop or on the road was strictly a matter of common sense. Luckily that was not in short supply, but today it seems to be more scarce than I'd like. And we need so much more than that alone anyway. We need real skills deliberately applied.

Nowadays the trucks and even the trailers are wildly complex and working in any shop presents challenges that must sometimes seem insurmountable. Time is always an enemy. Not every job gets the kind of time it really deserves, many techs will tell you, and they'll blame dispatch, who in turn will blame the sales folk, who will then bitch and moan about customers who have no idea what it takes to make the wheels roll.

One thing's for sure, we can't afford 'cavalier' any more. It's expensive, if nothing else.

It's not just trucking that suffers from the curse of such attitudes. It's all over the place, in every industrial space. Hell, in every space of whatever sort. And we're all rendered vulnerable. Like never before, sweating the details is now necessary.

Whenever I think of industrial safety in general, I think of my dear old dad. He was in charge of the engineering side of safety at a big steel plant. Being of good British stock, he rarely showed emotion, didn't talk all that much either. But I remember him complaining loudly about how often the safety rules he wrote and the warning signs he created were ignored.

Long after the fact, I now wonder if one horrifying incident left him with some variation of PTSD. A millwright was on a ladder working beside an operating oxygen furnace where iron and scrap metal is, essentially, boiled to make steel. Molten slag waste at a million degrees is poured off and runs along a sluice before the liquid iron soup underneath is extracted and formed into steel ingots. Tragically, someone took the red out-of-service tag off the overhead crane, moved it, and knocked the helpless millwright off his ladder and into the three-foot-deep slag run. Witnesses said he landed feet first in the red hot river and in slow motion disappeared as his body was consumed from the bottom up. That was a Saturday morning and dad had to rush to the plant to investigate. When he came home he was clearly devastated and stayed that way for weeks. He'd seen tough steelworkers cry as they helped him reconstruct the accident.

A cavalier attitude – meaning a willingness to be careless like that crane operator – has no place in the shop. But I still hear, for just one example, that we're not always serious about wheel security. In spite of endless service bulletins and instructional videos and even mandatory training programs, the worst still happens.

That's cavalier, and we really do have to fight it.

About the author
Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood

Executive Contributing Editor

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus at Newcom Business Media, which publishes Today’s Trucking.

View Bio