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TSA Style Dock Drama

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Listening to driver stories about produce facility inspectors, I find myself wondering how we get anybody to do this job!

There is a bunch to say about driver training and their role in safe food transportation, but that will be for another day. Our topic today is about the person who decides whether or not to load a trailer based on its condition. This person is the loading or shipping inspector. Prior to loading the product, the inspector will check the trailer to approve both the equipment condition and the environmental condition. For example, the chute and the surfaces (floors and walls) should be free of tears and holes. Satisfactory environmental condition means that prior cargo remnants, packaging, dust and other debris has been removed from the trailer. If the trailer has an aroma, not necessarily from prior cargo but anything that could affect the product, the inspector is likely to refuse to load product until it’s cleaned. This is called the ‘see and smell’ test. Some fresh produce shippers and buyers are comfortable with this level of ‘clean’. Some shippers don’t communicate their expectations, leaving a trucking company to find out the hard way…as in rejecting a trailer instead of loading it.

The equipment decision should be a straightforward decision. Are there any visible rips, holes, or detachments that may prevent the refrigeration system from properly functioning? However, tolerance levels for dirt, debris, and aromas can vary between facilities and the employees. Our site is located near three large shippers so we get the red hot drivers who sat forever waiting for a loading appointment only to get sent away for unsanitary conditions. Often there is an additional shipper requirement to come back clean AND with a receipt or some proof that the trailer had been cleaned and was ready for a food load. Now, you may be thinking, “Good! The driver should have known better than to think the shipper would load a dirty trailer.” And many times, this is correct thinking. But the actual loading history for the driver could include instances when an inspector ‘approved’ a trailer for a number of reasons. There may be reasons why the driver is unprepared for inspector pushback What’s the TSA got to do with this?

As I hear about different inspectors accepting some trailers while rejecting others, I get the same feeling that I do when I’m in a TSA security line. You just never know how things are going to turn out. Why is this? Sometimes the line is short, and I’m thinking…’Oh, this is going to be quick.’ But then I get ‘the agent’ who complicates the process and instead of breezing through security, I’m sidelined waiting for an additional search of my person or my bag. There are security standards, so how can things go awry? It’s the person. Having a person involved adds a layer of potential drama. Your drivers are responsible for getting a load picked up and delivered on time. Anyone in the food transportation business knows that there are a billion disruptions, problems, regulations, distractions, and expectations that all fall on the driver to manage. The drama and disrespect can start at the shipper’s check-in window. But the inspection procedures can infuse the loading process with a lot of frustration for the driver. Inspectors are people.

This means that they may take their job very seriously and find fault with small problems. They may not like their job, or hate their boss, so then they don’t care and won’t even look in the trailer. How many times have you been at work and felt ill, or were stewing about a situation at home, or were so excited about something that you could hardly think straight? Sometimes it can take very little to negatively impact our job performance. Inspectors are no different. Now, a word about the various people who may be present during an inspection which could result in heightened, or less stringent inspection protocols. On some days, a shipper will have a food safety and/or quality assurance (QA) person overseeing the process. If they’ve had some rejections and taken some heat about trailer conditions (equipment or sanitation-related) then everybody is on alert. Other stressful situations that may influence an inspection:

  • There could be FDA inspectors on site;

  • The shipper may be hosting customers; and or

  • 3rd party auditors may be observing and noting food safety violations.

These events and circumstances will contribute chaos and confusion for inspectors as they decide whether or not to load your trailer. But there is one difference between the TSA and fresh produce inspectors. The TSA team has a set of rules that are not arbitrary or unknown. We may feel like they are unreasonable, but the only variable that affects our experience in the TSA security area is the person operating the station. There are no unified standards guiding shipping inspectors. Transportation is the only regulated but not specified area of food safety. What this means is that while there is an FDA law that trailers must be ‘clean and sanitary’, there is not (yet) a definition of ‘clean’ or an application of food safety science that uniformly applies to a trailer environment. Truck drivers who aren’t sure about how clean their trailers should be find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of hoping they get their ‘favorite’ inspector, or that the crew is rushed and needs to get product loaded without delays. Three tips that may avoid or reduce these situations from happening.

  1. Get proof that the trailer was properly cleaned. Commercial washout services should at least give your driver a receipt for their service.

  2. Train your drivers to recognize potential problems with both equipment and environmental conditions.

  3. Confirm with your customers their ‘clean and sanitary’ equipment expectations, including whether or not they expect the documentation to show that the trailer was cleaned.

Along with everything else, food safety and contract compliance fall on the shoulders of your drivers. We hope you can find ways to support them, and when they are passing by or loading in Gonzales, guide them to Healthy Trailer where they will get a ‘rejection free’ clean! Rebate checks will be sent out next week. Thank you SO MUCH for your business. Discounts for you! We want to support your ‘clean and sanitary’ efforts. This is why we have different discounts and rewards to keep your costs down. Besides the rebate program 10% off for these drivers: Senior Discount - 55 and older Military Discount - Veterans and active duty Pet Owners - Drivers can show us their traveling companies and get the discount! And always, the loyalty program-6th service free!

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