Louisiana is a great wood basket. Many forest landowners have lots of trees at different stages of growth, loggers can harvest them efficiently and mills are ready to process the wood, turning the fiber into all kinds of products people use every day.
Getting the logs to the mills, however, is getting to be more of a challenge.
Over the past several years, loggers have had dynamics change that make it more difficult to get the wood to the mills. The cost of insurance is increasing. Also, the average age of log truck drivers is rising and there are fewer younger drivers to replace them. Those issues are causes for concern.
A presentation put together by David Cupp, who heads the Insurance Task Force for the Louisiana Forestry Association, describes rather bluntly the state of log trucking in Louisiana:
• Top 5 for insurance rates in the nation.
• Truck insurance renewal increases range from 20-100 percent.
• Competition for drivers with oil field, chicken farms and gravel haulers.
• A favorable climate for lawsuits involving heavy trucks.
• Increase in costs to repair vehicles.
• Distracted drivers, both in the trucks and in many other vehicles on the road.
The recruiting drivers is equally challenging. In 2017, there were 11 log truck driver fatalities. Also, the average life expectancy for a log truck driver is estimated at 62 years old.
“We have to do something,” Cupp said. “This is a crisis.”
Part of the answer could be Team Safe Trucking, a non-profit volunteer group formed in 2015 to address these issues nationwide because the challenges are not unique to Louisiana.
Miranda Gowell was hired as special projects manager for Team Safe Trucking in 2018. She said the group’s mission statement gets to the heart of the matter: “To reduce accidents through enhanced driver training and effective fleet management and to recruit new, safety-focused drivers to deliver a sustainable and profitable supply chain.”
Although insurance costs are troubling to businesses that operate log trucks, the focus of Team Safe Trucking is safety, said Cupp, president of Walsh Timber in Zwolle.
“No. 1 is accident prevention. That, to me, is the most important thing,” Cupp said.
Promoting safety for the drivers promotes safety to the community, Cupp said. Oftentimes log trucks are the most visible part of the forest products industry.
“We’re having our drivers injured,” he said. “The motoring public interface with us every day. That’s your wife, my wife, our kids.”
By focusing on safety, the problem with rising costs of insurance should take care of itself.
“Anything we can do in the logging industry to make things safer,” said Malcolm Sibley, owner and operator of KS Timber in Walker and president of the Louisiana Logging Council (LLC). “They’ve made it simple.”
To start, Team Safe Trucking has developed safety training modules designed specifically for log truck drivers. When Gowell joined Team Safe Trucking, she advised the group shorter interactive training modules for drivers would be better received and more effective. Some training modules cover truck maintenance and department of transportation inspections, for example. Others cover subjects such as distracted driving, alcohol and drugs, fatigue, preventing rollovers, speeding, and handling turns and curves.
The modules are designed for drivers to take on electronic tablets or smartphones. They are brief enough that some can be done while a driver waits to be unloaded at a mill.
Gowell said the modules are designed to be convenient for drivers whether waiting for a trailer to be unloaded or handled in a typical safety training class at a business. That flexibility is important, but it alludes to another factor of the program: helping businesses keep safety training records.
After drivers complete a safety training module, they are sent an electronic certificate. Although it can be a matter of pride to reward a driver with a certificate, the businesses have a copy to keep to record the training. That’s what Debbie Clark of Ricky Day Trucking does with her drivers.
The DeRidder trucking company has 47 drivers who haul logs and chips and has been in the business for more than 30 years. Clark, who has worked with log truck drivers for 14 years, said she was introduced to Team Safe Trucking in February 2018 when a training seminar was held in Zwolle. She has since incorporated the program into her safety training program.
In addition to the safety training modules for the drivers, Team Safe Trucking also provides safety tips several times each week. It’s also a source Clark can turn to when she has questions.
“I feel like there’s somebody on our side trying to pull for us and trying to help us improve,” Clark said.
Certificates that drivers earn are printed and saved in their personnel file, but Clark also makes a second copy for a binder of important papers kept in each truck.
“The more often we can get them to go through (the training), the better,” she said.
That’s why LLC is incorporating Team Safe Trucking safety training with continuing logger education credit this year.
“Team Safe Trucking is an approach we can take to assure that our drivers are the safest that they can possibly be on the road and begin the process to reduce the insurance rates,” Louisiana Forestry Association Executive Director Buck Vandersteen said. “It’s not the sole way to reduce truck insurance rates, but it is a first step.”
And it is getting noticed by the insurance industry, Gowell said.
“Some insurance companies are becoming education sponsors so they can monitor and see how (the program) is going,” Gowell said. “They are giving their customers access to training modules.”
Education sponsorships are needed to help get the safety training modules to the truck drivers who need training. It also will help develop new modules so the program builds on previous training, Gowell said. Her goal is to achieve 30 sponsors this year. Companies that become education sponsors can track drivers’ progress.
“Education sponsors can see which drivers have received training, can download training records for litigation or OSHA review or annual reviews,” she said.
Anyone interested in becoming an education sponsor can contact Gowell by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 207-841-0250.
Details about how Team Safe Trucking will be included in training through LLC are being worked out. Because the long-range goal of the program is safety, Vandersteen said the results should be far-reaching.
“It also elevates the driver to a more professional log truck driver,” he said. “We think that more education for our log truck drivers will translate to greater public awareness, greater pride in job and better performance on the road.”