When analysts look at utilities, and to some extent utility contractors, they often see what’s referred to as “mission creep.” That occurs when the expertise of the utility should be focused on quality and continuity of service but begins to be compromised by focus on too many other areas. The opposite of mission creep is when business elements that are critical to successful progress toward the goal get overlooked because of focus on the goal. One business element that gets less attention than it deserves are big trucks and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR). Granted, 75% or more of the FMCSR do not apply to utilities, and many parts that do apply are difficult to implement. Implementation is tough because, even as employers with drivers and big trucks, we are not carriers, which is the target audience of the rules, but we still are regulated by those carrier-related standards. The key areas of compliance for utilities are driver qualification, record of duty status (RODS), safety equipment and load securement. There also are a couple of new initiatives that we should keep an eye on.
Medical Database Delayed
As published in the Federal Register, Vol. 83, No. 120 (see www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2018-06-21/pdf/FR-2018-06-21.pdf), the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 2018 announced a delay in implementing the national clearinghouse for driver medical cards until June 22, 2021. In 2008, the FMCSA finalized rules for driver medical clearance; drivers were required to hold valid medical identification issued by a medical provider approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2015, the FMCSA established a national database that proposed to provide the real-time status of a driver’s medical clearance to employers, licensing agencies and enforcement. The original go-live date for the system passed, and the interagency data systems did not work. The FMCSA has announced that solutions are now in place and the expected 2021 go-live date is in effect.
Drug and Alcohol Database
Driver qualification originally relied on a prospective employer requesting information from a prospective driver’s previous employers regarding any drug or alcohol actions against them. There were issues with that process, partly because the prospective employer was required to send for the records, but there was no mandate for previous employers to reveal that information nor a penalty if they opted not to provide it. The government has solved that problem by requiring employers to enter drug and alcohol information for all of their drivers into a new federal database that went live in January 2020. The clearinghouse is a secure online database that allows the FMCSA, commercial motor vehicle (CMV) employers, state driver licensing agencies and law enforcement officials to identify – in real time – drivers with commercial licenses who have violated federal drug and alcohol testing program requirements.
Those who must register in the database are drivers who hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL) or commercial learner’s permit; employers of CDL drivers, including owner-operators; consortia/third-party administrators; medical review officers; and substance abuse professionals. Drivers do not have to register immediately, but they do have to register prior to any pre-employment or continuing employment driver status review.
A Change to Safety Ratings
The FMCSA uses roadside inspections, audits and crash reports to rate a carrier’s safety performance. The information is updated no less than monthly and often even weekly depending on where the information is collected and the efficiency of the reporting units.
The FMCSA’s Safety Measurement System (SMS) is an automated system that quantifies the on-road safety performance of motor carriers so that the FMCSA can identify unsafe carriers, prioritize them for intervention, and monitor whether a carrier's safety and compliance problem is improving. A carrier is monitored in several general areas of performance, including driver performance, moving violations, inspection performance, safe driving and crashes. A carrier’s performance area has a threshold for unsafe performance. If the performance drops below the threshold, the carrier can become the target of intervention management by the FMCSA. The first intervention is putting that carrier at the top of the roadside inspection directive. These directives are published weekly to all DOT enforcement agencies and list those carriers recommended for roadside inspection or those that are required to have a roadside inspection. That means when your drivers are spotted on the road, they are likely to be stopped.
Since every carrier operates on highways based on a permit of authorization, the FMCSA has the authority to suspend or revoke a carrier’s permit. Generally, a carrier with borderline performance receives notice. If they reach the threshold, they are managed. Often, that gives the carrier six months to improve performance and allows them to continue operation on a temporary basis where the carrier is monitored for performance.
A recent change to this program resulted in a mandatory rule that now prohibits a carrier from contracting with federal agencies if they are below any threshold requirement of the SMS. You can read about it in the FMCSR at section 385.13, “Unsatisfactory rated motor carriers; prohibition on transportation; ineligibility for Federal contracts.”
Some states are considering adopting or have already adopted the federal policy. That can be bad news for contractors that have municipal clients or, in some cases, extra-governmental agencies that operate under federal grants or agencies.
Ultimately, even though we don’t put the miles or time on the road that carriers in commerce do, the statistical analysis still applies. If our numbers are bad, we are likely to be involved in a crash. Take the FMCSR seriously. The FMCSA does, and they will treat us the same as any other unsafe carrier, including revoking our authority to operate CMVs on the road.
Electronic Data Logging
Utility Fleet Professional and its sister publication, Incident Prevention magazine (https://incident-prevention.com), received many questions early on in the electronic logging device (ELD) rulemaking and implementation process. At this point, most utilities and contractors know that we – for the most part – are exempt from ELDs because we qualify for one of the exceptions. The FMCSA does not require use of ELDs by drivers who use paper logs no more than eight days during any 30-day period. But it’s when paper logs are required that gets us in trouble.
For utilities and contractors, if you send crews beyond the daily travel limit in miles, your crew is required to record hours of service on paper logs. That means that drivers who will drive more than 100 miles in a day, or who drive fewer than 100 miles but do not return to their starting point on any single day in a seven-day cycle, are required to maintain a driver’s RODS log (see FMCSR 395.1(e)). The driver’s RODS logs must account for the previous seven days. If the logs in the driver’s possession are for fewer than seven days, the first daily log must begin with a notation (e.g., "Off duty 34 hours"). In no case shall logs show more than 60 hours on duty in seven days. As a CMV driver, any work for the employer is classified as “on duty, not driving.” By the way, the choice between a seven-day/60-hour or an eight-day/70-hour cycle for reporting is not available to utilities or contractors. Because we do not operate CMVs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we are required to follow the seven-day/60-hour driver cycle.
These rules apply to both drivers leaving their home location to drive to a job more than 100 miles away and to crews who are returning home from a work site more than 100 miles from their home location. There is another misunderstanding common among utilities and contractors, and that’s the declared emergency exception for storm restoration. When power has been restored and the public is no longer at risk, the hours-of-service (HOS) exception no longer applies. Crews returning from storm work are not exempt from RODS. Many state agencies do not interfere with returning convoys, but they can stop – and have stopped – convoys and put drivers out of service overnight when they did not have logs. As a safety director, I have had crews returning from storm work stopped in Texas and New Mexico and cited regarding their logs.
There is a Reason for HOS
HOS regulations prevent crashes and loss of life. When we work storms, we watch out for each other and are kept awake by the work and one another. On the drive home, everyone sleeps, and that sometimes includes the driver. Not a storm recovery goes by without a story of a crash on the return home. One of my pet peeves with storm response is that we don’t do a better job of protecting drivers from themselves. I was one, so I remember how much I wanted to leave when the work was over and get back home to my family and bed. That’s not an excuse to risk our employees’ lives. Every CMV driver that leaves a storm site should have a log detailing driving, rest, on-duty/not-driving and off-duty periods for the previous seven days. Utilities and contractors should be keeping crews for another rest day before sending them home. It should be worked into the storm response plan, agreed to in mutual aid and contractor contracts, and explained to crews before they leave home. We should be doing this because it’s the safe and the right thing, and it’s also the law.
New Definitions for Personal Conveyance
Another item related to driving home from work in a CMV is what’s known in the regulations as “using a CMV in personal conveyance.” Over the years, interpretations have maintained that drivers required to keep logs could use a CMV to drive a reasonable distance to and from their living quarters (hotel or personal residence) and the workplace, as well as between dining and shopping spots. That time driving would be counted as off-duty as long as the driver was relieved of all duty for the employer and free to do personal tasks, and the CMV was not “laden” (i.e., carrying loads). The exception was revised in 2017 and is explained in the FMCSA’s “Interstate Truck Driver’s Guide to Hours of Service” this way: “As long as the activity is not in support of a business, the Federal hours-of-service regulations do not apply to you. If you are not operating your truck in commerce, you are not subject to the hours-of-service regulations.” The requirement that the truck not be loaded or laden was removed since even though the truck may be carrying the employer’s goods, property or work product, the driving is not in service to the employer. We have heard this exception used as a reason why return from storm work was not counted as on-duty. That argument fails because the driver is returning the truck to the employer’s home location. And sleeping crew members are not counted as off-duty because the space they are sleeping in does not qualify as a sleeper berth.
In an informal survey I recently conducted, I asked safety managers which DOT citations they feel occur most often. The most frequent response was citations related to load securement, which represents the reason most roadside checks are initiated by CMV and local law enforcement. When enforcement sees questionable tie-downs or no tie-downs, they pull you over. If they are really curious about or disappointed in what they see, the situation turns into a full compliance roadside inspection. So, it seems a good way to ensure interaction with enforcement is to flaunt your lack of load securement.
Load securement was addressed in the June-July 2018 issue of Incident Prevention magazine (see https://incident-prevention.com/ip-articles/train-the-trainer-vehicle-weight-load-securement). I have continued to receive reports of enhanced enforcement from utilities and contractors. I first heard of enhanced enforcement when the DOT plugged articles into regional news services about enforcement of smaller load-carrying conveyances such as those used by lawn service and local construction companies. That soon spread to utility trucks. In the 2018 Incident Prevention article, I referenced two past incidents in which materials from CMVs left the beds of trucks, bounced across narrow medians and entered the windshields of cars passing in the opposite direction. On both occasions, drivers were struck in the head and received grave injuries. One of them died and the other is permanently disabled. In the two incidents, one of the items lost was a steel wedge about 14 inches long; the other was a 5/8-inch-by-22-inch DA bolt. The owners of the lost materials were never identified, but enforcement across the nation has been and still is ramping up load securement for lighter trucks. I recently heard that in New Mexico, enforcement informed a utility contractor that a 2-inch-by-6-inch plank across a rear deck and ladder access is not load securement. An enforcement official at a CMV seminar in New Mexico is said to have required netting or tarps over line trucks carrying materials that were not in covered containers and strapped down. The rule of thumb is that if it can bounce off, it is not secured.
The general rule for load securement is that cargo must be firmly immobilized or secured on or within a vehicle by permanent or built-up structures of adequate strength, dunnage, shoring bars, tie-downs or a combination of devices. Cargo that could roll must be restrained by chocks, wedges, a cradle and/or tie-downs. The means of preventing rolling must not be capable of becoming unintentionally unfastened or loose while the vehicle is in transit. That means if it was tight but became loose from shifting of cargo, it is not compliant.
Following are some simple reminders from the FMCSA about tie-down requirements.
The aggregate working load limit of straps, ropes or chains used to secure a load against movement must be at least half the weight of the article or group of articles. The aggregate working load limit of a tie-down system is half the working load limit of each tie-down that goes from an anchor point on the vehicle to an attachment point on an article of cargo, plus the working load limit for each tie-down that goes from an anchor point on the vehicle through, over or around the cargo and then attaches to another anchor point on the vehicle.
So, if I have a 10,000-pound pad-mount transformer on a flatbed truck, the aggregate rating of the tie-downs must be at least 5,000 pounds. I have three straps: two 4,000-pound straps from bed to transformer and one 4,000-pound strap over the transformer from bed hook to bed hook. The two from bed to transformer are rated at half the load rating of the individual strap. Those straps are now good for 2,000 pounds. The 4,000-pound strap from hook to hook is full rated at 4,000 pounds. That totals 8,000 pounds aggregate rating, meeting the requirement for aggregate tie-downs at half the weight of the load. As long as the arrangements of the straps prevent side-to-side and forward-to-rear movement, the load securement is compliant if it also meets the rules for number of tie-downs.
The number of tie-downs is in addition to complying with rules concerning the minimum working load limit. The rule for the number of tie-downs is based on loads that are not blocked or positioned to prevent movement in the forward direction. When loads are not prevented from moving forward, the number of tie-downs needed depends on the length and weight of the articles. There must be one tie-down for articles 5 feet or shorter in length and 1,100 pounds or less in weight; there must be two tie-downs if the article is 5 feet or shorter in length and more than 1,100 pounds in weight, or if the article is longer than 5 feet but less than 10 feet, regardless of weight. The best way to solve this problem is to always have a tie-down positioned on the rear of the load, anchored to the rear of the deck, sufficient to prevent forward movement. That alone meets the number of tie-downs required that is based on loads not prevented from moving in the forward direction.
Lastly, the requirements for pole securement are different than general cargo provided that the poles are carried on trailers designed to move them. You can find the full instructional guide from the FMCSA at www.fmcsa.dot.gov/regulations/cargo-securement/drivers-handbook-cargo-securement-chapter-3-logs. Here are the key elements of pole securement on pole trailers:
- Poles on the bottom must be in contact with the bunks.
- Poles on the sides must be in contact with the side chocks.
- Poles on the sides may not be above the height of the side chocks.
- The aggregate strength of the tie-downs must be at least one-sixth of the load weight.
- At least two tie-downs 10 feet apart must be used.
- Tie-downs must be as tight as possible without exceeding their load limit.