I'm occasionally asked what steps a motor carrier can take to significantly improve their DOT safety programs. Unfortunately, this question often arises after a carrier has been assigned a less-than-satisfactory safety rating following an FMCSA audit or when the carrier is facing a substantial increase to its commercial auto-liability insurance premium. Too often it's only at these low points that carriers come to the realization that their programs are not "up to snuff," and they find themselves scrambling to take long overdue course corrections to avoid or minimize some negative repercussion.
Whether you find yourself in this boat or are, instead, interested in proactively improving your safety program, I've found that carriers that take the following steps tend to see drastic improvements to their safety postures over time, as opposed to the more incremental improvements that come with smaller course corrections.
Demand safety culture buy-in at all levels
The term "safety culture" is overused and has, unfortunately, all but faded into the realm of meaningless business-speak. But there's really no better way to describe what should be every motor carrier's key tenant. Indeed, the FMCSA (and most insurers and juries) expect nothing less. So what is it? Well, in my view, a safety culture is the "why" behind an organization's safety-related decision making. It's what drives a carrier to adopt policies and procedures aimed at protecting their drivers and the motoring public. Without that driving force, carriers are left to blindly and reactively address safety defects, often after they've already found themselves in some kind of significant trouble.
For its part, the FMCSA talks regularly about the so-called Safety Management Cycle, which it says "provides a framework for brainstorming remedies, choosing solutions, and designing and implementing plans to improve the motor carrier’s safety operations." Really, the Cycle is just another way of describing a functioning safety culture, which the agency expects every carrier to have in place. Indeed, the agency's safety rating methodology--which it uses to assign safety ratings--explains that a satisfactory rating "means that a motor carrier has in place and functioning adequate safety management controls to meet the safety fitness standard prescribed in § 385.5. Safety management controls are adequate if they are appropriate for the size and type of operation of the particular motor carrier."
FMCSA Safety Management Cycle
In my experience, carriers that take the time to thoughtfully foster a safety culture and allow it to guide all aspects of their safety programs are much better off when it comes time to defend those programs in a DOT audit or before a jury. In my opinion, this first requires the carrier to document its culture and related expectations in writing in some kind of corporate policy. Ideally, this policy would be signed by the carrier's chief officers and directors to cement the idea that the culture permeates the entire organization, all the way up to the very top. Next, the carrier should carefully craft its safety-related policies and procedures, which should all be aimed at maintaining and upholding its well-defined culture. From there, the carrier must clearly communicate its policies and procedures in writing to safety managers, dispatchers, drivers, and anyone else in a position to impact the carrier's safety posture. Once that's done, the process demands accountability, through periodic self-auditing and course correction. Without these things, the carrier is merely paying lip service to its "safety culture," and that term continues to lose all meaning.
Trucksafe's Safety Management Process
In sum, if you feel like your safety program is really nothing more than fighting fires as they arise, it would do you well to sit down and carefully craft policies and procedures aimed at promoting a robust safety culture and then taking proactive steps to implement those things and ensure you have buy-in at all levels of your organization. If you don't know where to start, check out our sample driver handbook.
Centralize your safety management
Over the years, I've assisted hundreds of motor carriers through DOT audits, both in a consulting role and as legal counsel. In my experience, one of the biggest predictors of a successful outcome--by which I mean a satisfactory rating--is the carrier's level of centralization when it comes to its safety management. What I mean is that, too often, whether by design or consequence, carriers find themselves with a decentralized safety program that is too unwieldy to effectively manage and leads to a significant breakdown in safety management control.
By way of example, I once represented a large motor carrier that had grown over time primarily through acquisitions. This carrier had well over 100 terminals spread throughout the U.S., each with their own safety managers who were individually in charge of qualifying drivers, implementing and enforcing the carrier's safety policies, and maintaining vehicles within their respective territories. What this meant for us in the context of this carrier's DOT audit is that we were forced to first secure selected driver and vehicle files from these individual stations, which was a tremendous chore, particularly since the DOT only allows carriers 48 hours to produce any requested records. At the end of the day, the carrier was missing a significant percentage of files from certain stations and was unable to produce them to the investigator. Moreover, those files we were able to produce were terribly inconsistent from station to station, as each manager had his/her own preferred method of organization. This meant more work for the investigator, as he was forced to search out the particular documents he was after, which appeared in different places across each file. Sufficed to say, when it comes to a DOT audit, the last thing you want to do is to create more work for the investigator than is necessary, as this leads to more time spent with each file and often more scrutiny. Between the missing files and individual records in some of the produced files, this carrier was lucky to escape the audit with a conditional rating, which, in itself, resulted in some lost business and increased insurance premiums for this carrier. Had the carrier received an unsatisfactory rating--which was, frankly, not that far off--it would have been completely shut down.
The takeaway here is that carriers would be well advised to centralize their safety programs as much as humanly possible. Centralization, in my experience, is the best way to maintain proper oversight and consistency of the program. By divesting control of the program and pushing it down to individual stations, carriers lose their ability to effectively manage the program and track compliance. And this problem is only exacerbated the larger the carrier becomes. This isn't to say that a carrier must appoint one individual to manage its entire safety program; rather, carriers should simply ensure that their safety teams report up through some form of central management, ideally with a high-level executive overseeing the entire program. Further, the centralization of safety records, whether through an internal system or the implementation of a third-party solution, goes a long way to ensure that all files are and remain compliant and consistent.
Of the carriers I've represented who've successfully remained out of the DOT's and plaintiffs' bar's crosshairs, most have implemented some type of program to incentivize regulatory compliance among their drivers and safety managers. This is opposed to carriers who choose to primarily disincentive non-compliance through some form of discipline. It's the classic "carrot and stick" approaches to motivation. You can either reward someone for good behavior or punish someone for bad behavior. Studies have routinely shown that incentivizing good behavior through some type of reward system is almost always more effective than disincentivizing bad behavior through punishment.
Effective incentives in this industry can take many forms. For example, many carriers offer their safety managers and drivers monetary bonuses as rewards for meeting certain safety metrics (e.g., clean inspections, accident-free miles, training attendance). Others offer company "swag" or other non-monetary incentives to those who meet or exceed those metrics. The most effective approach will necessarily vary from carrier to carrier, but the important thing is that the safety metrics be clearly defined and that the rewards be substantial enough to actually incentivize good behavior.
This isn't to say that there isn't room in an effective safety program for some level of punishment for bad behavior. In fact, carriers should, in my opinion, have a progressive disciplinary section built into their safety policies, detailing the consequences of non-compliance. For example, a first offense may result in verbal warning, and subsequent offenses may require remedial training and could result in suspension or termination. In my experience, carriers with hybrid programs that both incentivize good behavior and disincentivize bad behavior typically see the best results in terms of overall compliance.
Resist temptation to make exceptions
What could be worse than a carrier that lacks well-defined safety policies? I would argue it's a carrier that has well-defined policies but fails to adhere to them. Take the following example:
Carrier ABC Trucking has a policy of not hiring drivers who have previously violated the drug/alcohol testing rules set forth in Part 382 of the federal safety regulations. In desperate need for additional drivers, ABC Trucking decides to make an exception to this policy and hire driver John Doe who previously tested positive for drugs while working for another carrier but who successfully completed the return-to-duty process and passed a pre-employment drug screen. Unbeknownst to Carrier ABC, John Doe continues to struggle with drug addiction and ends up causing a catastrophic accident while under the influence.
In this example, Carrier ABC is worse off having to defend its non-adherence to its own policy than it would have been if it had no policy in place to begin with. In essence, it has crafted its own standard by which it will be judged by a jury and will have to explain why it consciously elected to violate that policy. An unenviable position to be in, for sure.
One might say that the solution is to not have any such policies in place, but I would contend that approach is short-sighted. Having no such policy in place in this example would mean that Carrier ABC could argue that it was in compliance with the regulations when it hired John Doe. However, when faced with having to explain to a jury what steps you as a carrier took to prevent such accidents in the first place, merely "complying with the law" is going to be cold comfort, particularly when that jury will undoubtedly hear from experts about other carriers who have taken more proactive approaches in these situations.
So what's the answer here? In my view, and in line with my earlier points, carriers should take care to craft policies and procedures that are in line with their safety culture, and this often means going above and beyond what is required by law. The FMCSA itself describes its rules as the "minimum standards" with which carriers must comply, and, in my experience, carriers whose safety programs strive for something beyond these minimums tend to have better safety metrics and be better off when called to defend their programs. But with these enhanced policies comes an obligation to strictly adhere to them at all costs. With this in mind, carriers need to take the time to carefully consider and craft their policies, balancing the safety benefits and operational realities in the process.
Conduct regular self-audits
In line with the prior point, it's imperative that carriers routinely scrutinize their efforts to comply with their own established policies. What good are the policies if no-one abides by them? This is where self-audits come into play, which, as shown in our safety management process chart above, is a critical component of an effective safety program. Once safety policies are in place, carriers should be monitoring compliance with the policies on a regular basis. This could take the form of monthly self-audits where safety managers review regulatory records and safety data (e.g., Safety Measurement System) and identify instances of non-compliance with company standards. Carriers may also wish to enlist the services of a third-party consultant or attorney to conduct these audits for a more unbiased approach to the process. Regardless of the frequency or method of these self-critical examinations, the important part is that carriers take appropriate remedial action to address any and all deficiencies uncovered by the process.
When Trucksafe performs mock DOT audits for motor carriers, we put together a detailed list of violations discovered, as well as a list of recommendations to remedy those violations. Carriers can then develop action items from those recommendations to hopefully eliminate (or at least minimize) the occurrence of those violations in the future. By way of example, if a carrier has a high occurrence of hours-of-service violations during a mock audit, an appropriate corrective action might be to offer remedial hours-of-service training to drivers who need it. Obviously, the idea here is to continuously track the effectiveness of your safety program and to make routine but small course corrections, as opposed to having the program run entirely off the rails and having to take more substantial action to right it.
While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving an effective safety program, in my experience, carriers who have followed one or more of the aforementioned points are more likely than others to see drastic improvements to their programs. And while these improvements will undoubtedly take time to materialize, they are certainly worth the effort.
For help assessing or tailoring your safety policies, please feel free to contact us. And if you're interested in comprehensive DOT regulatory training for your safety managers and drivers, be sure to check out our courses through Trucksafe Academy.