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Credit: City of Evanston

Evanston, Ill., provides annual safety training in the use of this hook-lift unit from Stellar Industries, which permits the truck to mount different bodies.
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Daniel C. Brown is a freelance writer living in De Plaines, Ill.

Truck safety is a matter of life and death. That's why equipment inspections and safety training should be regular tasks in the routine of every well-run public works fleet.

In Evanston, Ill., city officials write equipment training into their bid specifications when they buy new trucks and equipment. That way, manufacturers must provide training in the safe operation of trucks, said Catherine Radek, superintendent of administrative services with Evanston. The city owns 320 pieces of rolling stock, including 150 light-, medium-, and heavy-duty trucks.

An example is the training provided for Evanston by Stellar Industries, based in Garner, Iowa. Stellar makes the hook-lift systems that enable a truck chassis to mount different bodies, such as a flat bed, a dump box, or a salt spreader. The hook lift system operates much like a hydraulic crane to lift a body onto the chassis.

“We go through that training every year,” said Radek. “We want to make sure our operators understand how to mount those bodies. There are two controls, and you have to operate them correctly.”

Evanston's truck drivers are required to inspect vehicles daily. Items checked include the lights, brakes, tires, horns, and backup alarms. “Our drivers are very keen to keep an eye on the equipment,” said Radek. “If anything goes wrong, a driver writes up a report and takes the truck to the mechanics' shop, which is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.”

Every year, Evanston runs a two-day snowplow training school. “We look at how the snowplows are mounted, how to carry the plow, what the best speed is for the truck, and more,” said Radek. For peak snow events, the city can put 24 to 30 plows on the street.

Safety training also is part of the regimen at the Fort Dodge (Iowa) Department of Public Works. “I lead our monthly safety meetings,” said Al Dorothy, superintendent of public works. “All drivers, operators, and equipment mechanics attend the meetings, because we do a lot of cross-training. About 30 or 40 people attend.” The city owns about 20 medium-and heavy-duty trucks.

“We try to feature a different topic at every monthly meeting,” said Dorothy. He obtains safety videos from Iowa State University or from the state DOT. “If the drivers have any concerns, we iron them out at those meetings,” he said.

In addition to training, backup alarms are an important safety feature on today's trucks, but ambient site noise often drowns out the sound of these alarms, said Allen Gerhard, a safety consultant and vice president of ATR Global Inc., Romeoville, Ill.

To solve the noise problem, Gerhard said he always requires a spotter on the ground to wear a fluorescent vest and guide truck drivers as they back up. The spotter makes sure the path is clear.

These backup spotters play a life-and-death role. In Washington, six workers were killed in recent years when construction trucks backed over them—despite audible backup alarms on the trucks. As a result, the state's Department of Labor and Industries began enforcing new regulations that require an on-the-ground spotter to signal when it is safe to back up—or a video camera that provides the truck driver with a full view of the area behind the truck.

Another danger is that material can stick in truck beds on one side or the other and unbalance the truck when the dump body is raised. “That material changes the center of gravity of the truck, and it can tip over in milliseconds,” said Gerhard. “We ensure through the use of a second person that nobody is around when a dump body is raised or lowered.”