Taking responsibility for your role in fleet safety is the first step

As a risk engineer for an insurance company, I have the opportunity to peek inside the operations of many different fleets. Most of the people I meet are doing everything they can to ensure that their employees are qualified and well-trained. The few accidents they have are used as learning experiences to help them reduce future risk.

But this is not always the case. When I work with a fleet that has too many accidents or has let safety performance slip in other ways, I must determine whether or not those in charge understand the problem.

This winter, for example, I worked with a fleet whose driver out-of-service rate was four times the national average. On numerous occasions drivers had been placed out of service for driving while disqualified, e.g., licenses had been suspended or revoked.

Imagine the consequences if one of these drivers had been involved in a preventable accident resulting in severe property damage or bodily injury. Such a situation could easily result in a negligence lawsuit with astronomical jury awards.

As I walked into the fleet's office, I was already rehearsing the call to our underwriters asking them to cancel the policy. This did not turn out to be necessary, however. The safety manager listened intently and took notes as we reviewed the fleet's loss history and roadside performance data. Instead of making excuses, his response was: "You're right. We've made some horrible mistakes and realize many improvements are needed."

This manager recognized the problem, as well as the fact that he was responsible for correcting it. The fleet has since implemented a driver performance monitoring system to identify the 20% of its drivers causing 80% of the problems.

A different visit took me to a company that, for the most part, had an acceptable safety program. The fleet had survived two federal safety audits and had many management controls in place. In addition, its accident frequency and severity was well within acceptable limits.

But there was one major risk factor: a vehicle out-of-service rate well above 40%. The safety director, who was aware of the problem, urged me to discuss it with the director of maintenance.

I reviewed the roadside inspection data with him and explained the consequences, from an insurance-claim perspective, of vehicles with out-of-service defects being involved in accidents with property damage or bodily injury.

His response was: "Look at the drivers we're hiring. They could care less about inspecting trucks. They come in here on Friday night and tell us all the stuff that's broken, expecting it to be fixed by Monday.

"I can't find any skilled mechanics. And look at this lot. How am I supposed to keep a clean shop or work on trucks in this mess?"

I realized I was dealing with someone who was not willing to take any responsibility for the fleet's safety-related problems. Everything was someone else's fault, making it very difficult to change the situation.

As we've learned from many self-help programs, the first step in changing is to admit that you have a problem. People who won't are a big obstacle to improving safety. They resist change, blame others, and insist that their way is the only way.

An attitude like this can jeopardize the safety record of the entire fleet.

Find out whether the "it's-not-my-problem" viewpoint is contributing to poor safety performance at your fleet. If it is, think about what you can do to help people step up to the plate and take responsibility. Then your fleet will be on its way to a real change in its approach to safety.

Jim York is a senior risk engineering consultant at Zurich Insurance Systems, based in Fredricksburg, Va.