Many a passenger car driver will tell you that as they drive down the highway, more than once have they taken a couple glances at tanker trucks as they pass by. While these vehicles and their cargo are generally safe and proceed without incident down our nation’s road on a constant basis, they often carry volatile or hazardous materials.
Even more, truck drivers themselves face a number of potential dangers operating tanker trucks. There are various ways that a truck driver working on a heavy-duty commercial motor vehicle can find themselves on the wrong side of an injury. Perhaps this is why the truck manufacturing industry is making efforts to make tankers easier for truckers to work around. Still, this doesn’t mean tanker trucks are unsafe.
Examining Potential Instabilities
In fact, whether they are liquid or dry bulk, tanker trucks are statistically among some of the safest vehicles on the road today. If you take a closer look at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts from 2012, it shows that cargo tanks were involved in significantly fewer crashes, whether they resulted in an injury or tow-away, then trucks operating as dry vans or flat deck equipment haulers.
Still, this doesn’t mean the tanker industry isn’t without areas for improvement. As one example, tanker trucks face dynamic stability issues, as well as safe operation techniques for handling and transporting potentially hazardous materials.
The main issue lies in the fact that many chemical and food-grade liquid tanks are shaped in such a way that their high center of gravity can cause potential rollover concerns. When turning, the liquid inside the tank tends to slosh up against the internal sides of the tank, which shifts that already-high center of gravity both up and outward, creating a potentially destabilizing effect.
Yet, it isn’t easy to simply change the shape of the tank and hope for the best. Tankers of this type require a special shape due to their unique cleaning requirements. Since the shape is largely a requirement, manufacturers and fleets utilizing these vehicles are increasingly spec’ing them with advanced safety technologies such as roll-stability control or collision avoidance systems.
Fleets are driving the push for these additional safety technologies to account for the weight, application, and reliability requirements pushed by both federal and state governments. The fact is, safety-conscious customers are asking fleets to implement these technologies at a far faster pace than ever before. What were once considered fringe options, such as roll stability and tire inflation systems, are growing in popularity and becoming standard-issue on factory roll-out truck and tanker models.
Where Design Can be Changed
Still, while some argue that the tanker shape is critical to its use profile, others argue that there are stability improvements to be found by changing the tankers shape or lowering its center of gravity. Sure, petroleum, oil and machinery lubrication tanks have had the same cylindrical and elliptical profile for many, many years – but why?
To start, this design creates a wider stance at the bottom of the tank. By lowering it even further, even by a matter of inches, OEMs can realize even greater levels of safety. But how?
While many tanker manufacturers already employ low-profile-ellipse tank shapes, they can also go a bit further by utilizing an integral chassis frame or inserting a fifth-wheel plate, as opposed to a raised bolt-on plate. Utilizing this design both brings the tank body closer to the ground, lowers overall center of gravity, and increases structural stability.
Yet, many of you may be asking, “How does that help me, the truck driver?” It helps you in the form of increased safety while operating on the nation’s roads, but there are certainly other improvements that can be made to improve truck driver safety without compromising overall design.
Preventing Falls Through Trucking Technology
If there is one aspect of being a tanker truck driver that truck driver’s dread the most, it is when they have to climb on top of their trailers or tankers. In fact, one of the biggest challenges facing the truck, trailer, and tanker manufacturers has been building in technologies that mitigate or prevent falls.
Over the years, the search for a safer tanker to work around has led to all sorts of innovations, from lifting guardrails to wider catwalks. Technologies requiring operators to tether themselves to gantries have even seen adoption within some fleets. Yet, not all innovations are perfect.
Utilizing cables means truck drivers could potentially trip on them. If a guardrail gets caught in a loading rack, it could wind up becoming twisted or warped. In some cases, if not properly reinforced, they may not be able to properly support a driver in the event of a fall.
That’s why manufacturers are beginning to look towards other innovations to reach peak level of trucker safety. Modern day fall protection measures include reinforced hand railings and lanyard attachments. But who is responsible for setting these standards?
Industry Safety and Tanker Design Advocacy
Most tanker manufacturers receive guidance from two specific industry standards groups: The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association and the Cargo Tank Risk Management Committee. These groups represent a synergistic partnership between not only tanker manufacturers, but motor carriers, tractor OEMs, shippers, and more.
Some integral safety measures have resulted from this partnership. One such example is a tram system built by one manufacturer that employs the use of a waist-high support belt. The proprietary design provides the truck driver with a greater degree of mobility while preventing any unwanted harness entanglements.
The design itself is based on a reinforced rail that runs along the entire length of the tank. This design allows the truck driver to more easily access the dome covers on the top of the tank without having to worry about getting tangled up. Yet, the design innovation doesn’t stop there. When not in use, the rails fold down to prevent interference with loading racks. For fleets focusing on fuel efficiency, the fold down racks don’t negatively impact trailer aerodynamics.
Even more advanced designs seek to prevent unwanted falls or injuries an even more obvious way. Rather than developing advanced rail and climb technologies, why not prevent the truck driver from ever having to leave the ground in the first place?
Keeping Feet Planted
Some manufacturers have begun to look to technologies that keep truck drivers from ever having to climb around their tanks. But how do they do this? Methods include everything from bottom loading tankers to advanced vapor recovery systems. Both setups eliminate the need for a truck driver to crawl around on the top of a trailer. Other specs include pneumatic recovery systems and ground-activated actuating vents.
Still, some point out that chemical, food-grade, and dry-bulk tanks are not always conducive to such systems. But that doesn’t mean tankers operating within these applications are not without change. One tanker manufacturing company has developed a remote-controlled port cover, which allows truck drivers to operate dry-bulk tanks from the ground, with no need to climb around the tanker.
When a tanker cannot be remotely operated due to the type and condition it operates in, other technologies come into play. Safe tank-top access ladders provide a more ergonomically beneficial design and allow truck drivers to maneuver without the risk of a fall.
One example of collaboration at work was when the aforementioned tanker safety organizations teamed up with OEMs and motor carriers to design the Vision 2020 ladder, which fleets report greater safety outcomes when in use in their fleets.
The fact is, there may be some time to go before the need for a truck driver to climb around the tank is completely eliminated. But until then, tank and trucking designers are doing everything they can to ensure greater levels of safety for those operating around tanks. In those situations, perhaps one should look to lighting.
Illuminating the Way to Greater Safety
One area where tank builders are finding innovative ways to help truck drivers do their job is in lighting. Manufacturers are now offering comprehensive lighting packages that include auxiliary lighting systems, LED rows, and movement-sensitive flood lights.
Manufacturers are looking to lighting bars that range from 3 to 10 feet long and can swing out from a stowed mounting position on the body of the tank. What are these for? These lit barriers provide an added layer of protection for truck drivers who are loading or unloading. They create a greater awareness of the truck drivers work area as well as a way for others on the road to easily see the operator and avoid a potential accident.
If there is one lesson to be learned as we examine the plethora of tanker safety technologies hitting the scene on an almost-daily basis, it is that the risks truck drivers face when operating tankers are quickly fading. As manufacturers continue to innovate and release designs specifically catered to truck driver safety, expect to see the tankers of tomorrow looking little like the tankers of today.