Safety First

February 1, 2005 By    

After killing his wife in 1995, a distraught man drove away and attempted to commit suicide by ramming his vehicle into a propane delivery truck. The man received only minor cuts and bruises, but the propane truck driver received major injuries to his back and neck and ended up on permanent physical disability.

In 2002, a man who murdered three people barricaded himself in his Lansing, Mich., home. Police set up a perimeter around the house, but an unaware propane driver pulled up to make a delivery. Thinking the driver was an undercover police officer, the suspect emerged from the house aiming a shotgun at the driver as he was about to turn on the gas. Alert police officers drove up, quickly pulled the driver into their vehicle, and removed him from danger.

It’s unlikely that your drivers will encounter either of these two exact situations, but there is a chance they will encounter some form of violence during their years working for you.

One type of violence involves non-customers who perpetrate violence on drivers delivering in unsafe neighborhoods (such as robbery attempts). Another involves customers who are angry with your company and want to take their issues out on your employee.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 million people become victims of violent crime while on the job each year. These incidents account for 15 percent of the total number of acts of violence each year.

About half of these victims take an average of 3.5 days off work as a result of the crimes. The national totals are 1.7 million lost workdays and $55 million in lost wages, not including sick days and annual leave days.

Over 30 percent of victims faced armed offenders, with about one-third of these offenders brandishing handguns.

Eleven out of every 1,000 commercial drivers (not including bus drivers and taxi drivers) are victims of violent crime each year.

Risks increase if the commercial drivers:

  • Carry money
  • Are asked to collect money from customers
  • Work alone
  • Work in high-crime areas or isolated areas
  • End up in arguments with customers over payment, service, etc.
  • Inadvertently stumble across crimes in progress or illegal activities such as methamphetamine labs

General Recommendations

Lynne McClure, president of McClure Associates, a workplace violence consulting firm in Mesa, Ariz., notes that companies that deliver money to and from banks are obviously more likely to be considered targets for armed robbery than are average citizens driving their own cars.

Armored car companies arm their employees and train them in the use of weapons to ensure they are prepared. A propane driver carrying money, though, is not armed or professionally trained in the use of firearms to avert armed robberies.

“As such, if they carry money, these drivers are more of a target than are average citizens driving their cars, but they are no better prepared to protect themselves,” says McClure.

To protect its drivers from robbery, Lampton-Love of Jackson, Miss., trains its drivers to turn in reports and money as often as they can during the day.

“If they end up carrying a lot of money, they are trained to transfer it to a bank bag and keep it hidden in the truck,” states Rusty Easterling, vice president, retail operations and president of the Mississippi Propane Gas Association.

The MPGA provides its members with information, training, safety compliance kits, video libraries, etc., including information on how to address violence that drivers may face on the job.

“We tell our drivers that if they are ever confronted by someone with a gun or knife demanding money, they should hand it over,” says Easterling. “Even if the person is not brandishing a weapon, they should turn over the money if they feel threatened,”

To protect its drivers, Energy United Propane in Mocksville, N.C., minimizes the amount of payments, both cash and checks, that drivers are responsible for collecting.

“For new customers where we can’t establish good credit, we request a deposit in advance for the first delivery,” says Don Schalk, general manager. “We also ask these customers to mail payments in advance of subsequent deliveries, and we inform them in advance how much the deliveries will be.”

The most effective way to prevent robberies is to make sure the drivers never carry money. If this is done, that fact should be clearly advertised.

“On the truck, in big letters, it should say that the driver carries no money. And it should be true,” says McClure.

Besides creating a policy on how much money — if any — drivers will carry, it is important to provide work schedules that reduce the potential for violence and to train drivers to use their instincts to protect themselves.

“We keep regular business hours, so that our drivers aren’t out late on deliveries, except for emergencies,” says Johnny Hobbs, vice president of Demco Distributing in Shelby, Miss., and immediate past president of the MPGA.

“We encourage our drivers to follow their instincts,” adds Easterling. “If they become concerned about going into a neighborhood or area that they feel might be dangerous, we tell them not to do so.”

“Drivers should look at each scenario as they arrive to make a delivery and use their judgment as to how they want to handle it,” says McClure.

“In addition, if they come across suspicious activity, such as a drug house in an urban area or a meth lab, which is becoming more common in rural areas, they should pretend not to see anything, and just leave the area.”

Urban Issues

For drivers delivering in urban areas that may be considered dangerous, there are some things your company can to do help protect them.

“Since we are a rural marketer, we don’t run into criminals with guns demanding money,” says Schalk. “However, prior to coming here, my partners and I owned a company in Pennsylvania.”

According to Schalk, drivers often made deliveries to areas of the city known to be unsafe. One step the company took was to place stickers on the trucks explaining that drivers didn’t have any cash.

“Prior to doing this, we did have an incident,” says Schalk. “However, after placing the stickers, we didn’t have any more incidents.”

More importantly, the company got together with other distributors in the area, all of whom were members of a local petroleum association that sold propane, heating oil, and other products.

“We went to the police and said that we would no longer make any deliveries to that part of the city until they got the area under control,” says Schalk.

The police and the city administration were receptive to the request. One reason was genuine concern for the safety of the drivers.

“However, they also realized that if residents starting complaining about not being able to get service, the media would get involved,” says Schalk. “We said that we would explain to the media that it wasn’t our fault, that we wanted to make deliveries, but that we would not be willing to put our employees in harm’s way.”

As a result, the police increased patrols and also began to address some of the drug problems that existed in that area.

Rural Issues

Until the last five years or so, the most common type of violence drivers in rural areas had to face while making deliveries was being accosted by angry and/or inebriated customers. That has all changed, though, with the explosive growth of methamphetamine labs, which are popping up all over the country, especially in rural areas.

The latest statistics from the National Clandestine Laboratory Database show that there are over 7,000 known methamphetamine labs in the United States, with the highest concentrations being mostly in central states Missouri (824), Arkansas (543), Tennessee (499), Indiana (422), Oklahoma (402), Illinois (305), and Iowa (300). Other states with large numbers are California (709) and Washington (361).

As such, it is becoming more and more common for drivers to be making deliveries to residences that are meth labs or to residences that are located next door or near to meth labs. For example, a driver may end up making a delivery to a mobile home that is located beside another mobile home where meth activity is taking place.

Recommendations

First, drivers should be trained by local police authorities on how to recognize meth labs (what kinds of items may be strewn around outside the residence, what kinds of smells may be emanating from the residence, etc.).

What if the delivery location is next door or near to a meth lab?

“First, they should act as if they see and know nothing,” says McClure. “They should focus on the delivery and pretend they don’t even see the other trailer.”

Second, the drivers should report what they’ve seen after they’ve left, but never let on that they have seen or reported anything.

“Even if you are in a small community where everyone knows everyone, drivers should still need to keep up the pretense of not having seen anything,” he says.

What if it becomes obvious that the delivery location itself is a meth lab?

First, if there are people around who are high and making the driver nervous, he should skip the delivery.

“He should not even knock on the door if he is concerned about potentially dangerous activity,” says McClure. “He should return to the office and explain the situation.”

The office should then call the police.

If the customer calls and complains about the delivery not being made, the office should find an excuse that the driver couldn’t make the delivery — there was too much trash in the area to get close enough, there was too much traffic, there were too many people, or some other excuse — anything but the truth.

“You should never say the reason was due to illegal activity,” says McClure.

Terror Issues

Most are familiar with the new guidelines to prevent a terrorist from hijacking a propane vehicles.

“To address the terrorist issue, we work with local police and fire departments, as well as other companies, to conduct mock terrorist scenarios, where a terrorist would steal a propane bobtail,” says Schalk. “Besides the practical value, these scenarios also generate good public relations, showing us as good corporate citizens in the community.”

Today, there are satellite systems that can track trucks. If a truck is stolen, the system can shut down the engine so it operates at speeds around ten miles per hour, allowing authorities to overtake it.

“However, these systems are expensive and not yet required by the government,” says Easterling.

In the meantime, Lampton-Love is using the Driver Authorization System, created by Base Engineering. When a driver puts the air brakes on and gets out, the engine will die if anyone, including the driver, gets into the vehicle and just hits the air brakes button to release the brakes.

“The driver must punch in a code to unlock his brakes,” says Easterling.

If the truck is parked somewhere overnight and the driver is not available, or if the driver becomes ill and is unable to drive, branch managers have master codes to unlock the system.

Customer Violence

When Rusty Easterling was a propane truck driver, he would occasionally run into “situations.”

“In most cases, these would be angry customers who had been drinking too much,” says Easterling, vice president, retail operations for Lampton-Love in Jackson, Miss., and president of the Mississippi Propane Gas Association.

Today, it seems, people are more quickly and easily angered, sometimes even at very minor provocations.

According to Lynne McClure, president of Mesa, Ariz., workplace violence consulting firm, McClure Associates, customers may become angry with drivers for any number of reasons. However, she believes the potential for angry and violent confrontations increases significantly if drivers carry money and are expected to collect from customers.

“Asking for payment can lead to arguments and other potentially violent situations,” says McClure. “Even if customers just have financial complaints against the company, they are more likely to take it out on the driver if they know the driver carries money.”

For example, according to McClure, if the customer doesn’t have enough money to pay the bill, the driver is then forced to figure out what the credit policy is, thus becoming a symbol and a target for all of the frustrations and anger the customer has. Therefore, if the driver just delivers, and doesn’t collect, the customer is less likely to get angry with the driver.

“Most of our accounts and collections are handled through the office, so drivers aren’t confronted with having to collect,” says Johnny Hobbs, vice president of Demco Distributing in Shelby, Miss., and immediate past president of the MPGA. “Our insurance company provides excellent training on customer service and communication to help drivers stay clear of confrontations or arguments with customers.”

McClure also encourages employers to teach drivers some communication skills. Some examples are:

Explain to drivers that customers aren’t angry with them personally, they are venting because the drivers represent the company.

“As such, drivers should let them vent,” says McClure. “They should listen to them and acknowledge that they heard them.”

However, the drivers should not argue with them and they shouldn’t try to solve their problems. They should simply say, “I can see how you feel that way.”

Drivers can then add something like, “I would like to help you, but I don’t know anything about that side of the business.”

At this point, if appropriate, the driver can give the customer the contact name and number of the person in your company who handles the financial situation.

Lampton-Love is another company that believes in training its drivers to defuse potentially violent situations with customers. “We believe in the philosophy that the customer is always right, so we train our drivers on how to communicate with customers to prevent escalation of situations to anger or violence,” says Easterling.

Energy United Propane in Mocksville, N.C., also trains its drivers to protect themselves.

“We train them on what they should say and shouldn’t say,” says Don Schalk, general manager. “For example, if customers become belligerent, drivers are trained not to get into arguments with them.”

Along the same lines, if a customer is expected to pay for a delivery and becomes belligerent, the driver is instructed not to make the delivery.

“He is trained just to leave the premises,” says Schalk.

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