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Driving The Chain: The Important Role Truck Drivers Play In Our Food Supply Network

My email inbox, probably like your own, is filling up with reports, trends, and suggestions from supply chain experts. As is normal for year ends and beginnings, supply chain analysts are evaluating processes for failures and successes in the year that is winding down, and utilizing the information from these exercises to plan and forecast for the upcoming year.

Most of their efforts are focused on the overall integration and networking of the variables (supply availability, producer capacity, etc.) that either hinder or bolster the goals of a typical supply chain system.

The Core Driver Of Supply Chains

Many supply chains are incredibly complex, while others remain simple and yet effective. Overall, at the core of what makes many of these supply chains efficient are the people literally ‘driving’ the success of the operations--the truck driver. For sure, one of the most integral parts of the food supply chain is trucking companies and their driver employees or contractors.

truck transporting goods across the desert

It is ‘seasonally’ appropriate to acknowledge these hardworking people now during the holidays as they put endless work into meeting our endless expectations.

But similar to how supply chain professionals evaluate past, current, and future trends in particular industries, it is vital that those of us with businesses in the food and food transportation industries consider the food safety trends toward more accountability, visibility, and sustainability and recognize in their driver development and experience programs how better to support the people driving our own food supply chain successes or failures.

The Changing Food Safety Landscape

Food safety demands on businesses are increasing, and drivers will have an important role in ensuring that your product is healthy and safe on the road to consumers.

Thinking about my experience owning a small fresh produce truck brokerage, I can’t take the credit for my on-time deliveries. I may have organized the details, simplified and clarified dispatches, and removed obstacles that threatened unacceptable delays. However, I didn’t drive the truck, so I didn’t interact with the shipping and receiving staff to get the product loaded and delivered as ordered and on time. I didn’t navigate the traffic or plan the routes around the winter storms. I didn’t manage the fuel or rest stops.

As efficient and robust as our overall food supply chain may be, at the core of our success in transportation expertise and competencies are the truck drivers doing the work. Failing to acknowledge this, both in how we operate our companies and on the larger scale of the overall industries will result in poor service and disruptions in the supply chain.

My world is fresh produce, and while clearly, information systems are absolutely indispensable in the logistics of fresh fruits and vegetables, ignoring the human interactions with the people who are doing the actual transportation work will put our operations, brands, and overall food safety commitments to consumers, our customers, and our companies at risk.

fresh produce

This is particularly true if we expect drivers to do our food safety compliance. And we do because they are the people who ‘touch’ our loads from the shipper's facility to the receiver’s delivery destination.

My experience with truck drivers is extensive. I’ve learned so much from them, not only as a truck broker but also as the manager at Healthy Trailer. If I could, I would spend all my time at the sites because these people are the ‘living’ part of my job. If I’m right and the trend toward greater food safety traceability gains steam, you may need some additional help in getting your safe food transportation programs better aligned with your truck driver support.

3 Tips For Food Safety & Logistics

Think of me as your ‘boots on the ground’ resource for part of your transportation food safety programs. I’m going to share three recommendations that will be helpful to your food safety and logistics teams.

  1. Don’t put all drivers in the same bucket.

  2. Realize that drivers have hazards of their own that may put your product at risk.

  3. Give them the tools, training, and support on how to use them that they will need to safeguard your product while it’s in their trailers.

Driver Differences

I have ‘children.’ That’s the group, but they are all different. I taught school and had ‘students.’ But I had to teach them as individuals. Children, students, and drivers, like all employees, are all in a ‘class’ that is made up of people with unique preferences, cultural backgrounds, learning and behavioral styles, and different life experiences.

Failing to recognize this in our food operations will result in unsanitary environmental conditions in the trailers that you use for food transportation.

Last week, one of our regular drivers arrived while I was ‘holding down the fort’ during our employee's lunch hour. This means that I am allowed to park trucks and talk to drivers but not operate the machine.

There are good reasons for this plan, trust me. And I love the chance to talk to the drivers. We chatted about things that I don’t really remember now, but the one thing that he brought up was how many other drivers don’t take the time to clean their trailers.

In his opinion, and one actually shared with many drivers, he thought all foodborne illness outbreaks happened because of dirty trailers. Healthy Trailer should hire him to be our spokesperson!

The same day, we had another driver who arrived ‘hot’ and impatient. Without needing to ask why, we already had a hunch. We’d seen him drive by hours earlier on his way to a local shipper. When he arrived at our Gonzales site, we looked inside his trailer and immediately saw that the floor was covered in grime and had decayed pieces of veg product throughout the trailer.

The shipping inspector had sent him away and told him not to return until the trailer was clean. The driver had hours to get this done. Worse, he actually thought that the shipper would put fresh product in that dirty environment.

This example shows the difference between driver preferences about the cleanliness of their equipment. You may be thinking that if there is any type of obvious debris or odor, of course, a driver should clean their trailer.

But we have drivers who come in with very clean-looking and smelling trailers that insist on a sanitation service because they want the ‘proof’ (our Healthy Trailer Clean certificate), and it’s what they believe should happen before any food is transported.

Drivers’ cultures influence their sanitation and hygiene habits, both personally and in how they maintain their trailers. Some of them work for very professional trucking companies that provide ongoing training in safe food transportation, and many do not.

Recognizing driver differences acknowledges the hard work that many drivers expend in their work. At the same time, it will prevent other drivers from putting your food product at risk during transportation.

Over the Road Driver ‘Nonroad’ Hazards

Here we are, headed out of the Thanksgiving shipping rush and into Christmas and New Year's. Many drivers are trying to push through a few weeks of back-to-back loads so that they can get home for the holidays. Others stay out on the road, hoping to see some rate spikes before the end of the year.

traffic on the road with a lot of cars and trucks

The ‘hazards’ I’m thinking about are the pressure-filled driving and work conditions that many people don’t realize are part of the food supply chain but that are all too familiar for drivers.

  • Miserable traffic congestion due to holiday travel;

  • Family and friends calling for arrival updates so that the driver is home for the holidays;

  • Weather conditions from storms (and crazy drivers) that snarl traffic and cause rerouting delays;

  • Breakdowns that require tows from out in the middle of nowhere, only to wait for repairs and parts that will cost hours and sometimes days of transit time;

  • Trying to find fuel and rest stops in safe and non-congested areas.

It’s all part ‘of it,’ as many drivers will tell you. They will also tell you that the better their job performance, the more likely the company will ask them to cover for the less component employees, which translates into “Just ‘one’ more before you take time off.”

This may sound unrelated to food safety practices, but put yourself in the ‘driver’s seat’ and think about the decisions you may be tempted to make to alleviate pressure or get your job done. Fastest, most convenient, cheapest…what are the options that weigh against what you would prefer a driver do to keep food safe in a trailer?

Tools and Teamwork

If we acknowledge and accept (you do, right?) that there are driver differences, and we understand that a significant part of a driver’s job is to manage multiple layers of responsibility and pressure, how can we simplify their role in ensuring our food safety compliance?

What if we treated them as team members and helped them see how this is a ‘we’ approach?

Indirectly or directly, we can make ‘the right thing easy’ when we make the process easier. Lead them in the right direction and help them make it happen. In the big picture, they are extensions of our businesses, and we need them to carry out our mission of producing, selling, or serving safe food.

They may or may not be your employees, but involving yourself (or your company) in their work will ensure your protocols are followed, and they will have a clear understanding of your expectations. Clarity ultimately saves time and is the shortest path to success for you, your customers, and your suppliers.

How can we do this?

A. Give them specific details.

Many drivers have never heard of a food safety sanitation SOP. Write it out, and give it to your transportation vendors and loading crews. Everyone will then have the same standards and the same objective.

Just a few questions and considerations that will guide you:

  • What do our customers require in our contracts? Or what have WE (as a food or fresh produce shipper, buyer, or receiver) specified in our contracts?

  • What cleaning and sanitizing process should we implement based on our cargo?

  • What is our policy about the use of sanitizing chemicals?

Healthy Trailer can help those of you who don’t have experience with trailer sanitation protocols. They are not complicated, but they do need to be consistent and complete.

B. Clear the path.

One thing I’ve noticed is that we may have both the tools and training organized and implemented, but we still run into gaps in performance. This is happening because we haven’t done our part in ‘clearing the path’ for them to do their job.

We may need to observe how the process is working to discover hidden obstacles that are making everyone’s job harder to do.

1. First, Communicate the protocol to drivers. Let them know that they must arrive at the shipping destination with ‘proof.’ Drivers should check in with a washout receipt.

If the driver is near a Healthy Trailer site, not only will they leave with a clean certificate, but also, just inside the trailer, the loading crew will see a ‘Healthy Trailer Clean’ sticker with the date of the clean. QA and shipping inspectors love this!

2. Second, communicate to your transportation vendors, or whoever is responsible for booking your loads, that this is the protocol--documentation of the most recent clean.

3. Third, all the shipping staff, not just the drivers, must be part of the process.

Many problems start at the check-in window when the driver first arrives without the sanitation SOP document. We can greatly reduce friction and frustration for everyone, particularly the drivers, when we make the sanitation protocol not only clear and specific but required.

This may mean that you will have to supervise and possibly correct a few employees for giving drivers a ‘pass’ on the documentation step. Regular drivers often have good relationships with the shipping and receiving staff. This is usually a good thing, but it can have a negative impact on your program.

4. Fourth, assuming that drivers, dispatchers, and shipping/receiving crews understand the protocol can be frustrating to the employees. It will probably result in non-compliance with your protocol. It may feel like ‘overtraining’ or redundant to you or your food safety/logistics teams. An employee may get impatient or feel untrustworthy.

Certainty, use your best judgment in how you approach training but don’t make the same mistake as I did last week.

Our employee has been working for us for a short period of time, and when I have asked him how things were going, he’s assured me that he felt confident in most areas of his work. But we found a big problem, and his response was that we had never trained him on how to handle the specific situation in question. In talking to him, I saw where we had failed him.

As in most cases of poor performance, this usually hints towards a different problem, namely inadequate leadership. An organization that invests in quality leaders will have a direct impact on how everybody, drivers included, operates according to plan and protocol.

Personalize the Impersonal Links in Your Supply Chain

The supply chain, with all its systems and intangible parts, can leave us with the impression that it is impersonal and independent from real people. This may be true in some industries, but managing the food supply chain without recognizing the contributions and differences of the drivers weakens the supply chain and leads to food safety risks.

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