Without solid leadership, as well as a willingness to adapt over time, nothing can be accomplished well, including a safety strategy.  -  Photo: Lauren Brooks, Monclay Media/Canva

Without solid leadership, as well as a willingness to adapt over time, nothing can be accomplished well, including a safety strategy.

Photo: Lauren Brooks, Monclay Media/Canva

Safety is at the forefront of every fleet operation. But there is something that must be in place before a fleet safety strategy can be successfully achieved: a solid fleet management team.

Without solid leadership, as well as a willingness to adapt over time, nothing can be accomplished well, including a safety strategy.

“Safety must be leader-driven,” Acrisure Executive Vice President Brian Fielkow said in “Fleet Safety is Not a Priority,” the opening keynote for the 2023 Fleet Safety Conference.

A proper safety culture cannot exist without good management in place.

“Is your team really living and breathing safety, doing the right thing when nobody's looking? Are we driving safety by leadership? Are we walking the walk? Or are we just talking the talk?” Fielkow encouraged attendees to consider.

Breaking the Mold and Starting from Scratch

Fielkow previously served as the CEO and owner of Jetco Delivery. As the company grew at a rapid rate, the safety process that was in place was no longer viable. Fielkow’s team took that as an opportunity to improve the processes and mindsets regarding safety.

“We broke the mold. We were small enough for a time that we could get our team [together]…and we celebrated our successes. We talked about what was going well. But we made it very clear that if we can't fix this, it's a one-way ticket out of the business,” Fielkow said.

Fleet managers can’t continue to do the same thing and expect different outcomes. The mindset of making safety the top priority without having a solid plan in place can be dangerous.

“When you see a sign up on the wall that says, ‘Safety is our number one priority,’ tear it down. Safety is not a priority. Safety is a non-negotiable core value,” Fielkow stressed. “There's a difference between values and priorities. Words matter. You see priorities shift; they can shift they do shift.”

Make Zero the Goal

One way fleet managers must shift their thinking is in aiming for zero preventable crashes and incidents. While some believe this mindset can set you up for failure, Fielkow believes it’s the only way to approach safety culture within your fleet.

“Zero is a mindset. You may never get there. But you have to have that mindset that we're not going to accept any preventable crashes, or we're going to treat them all the same,” Fielkow said. “If anybody thinks 99% is good enough, then do me a favor. Get 100 people in a room and get one person to raise their hand [after you ask] ‘who doesn't want to come home tonight?’ As leaders, we have got to make sure that we are leading from a perspective that 99% is not good enough,” Fielkow said.

Fleet managers’ goals should be to get every employee home at the end of their shift, Fielkow stressed. And it may require a change in your policies and procedures.

“We’ve got to overcome the fear of change. And I think your ability to drive change is a function of leadership, commitment, support, and trust,” Fielkow said. “The more your team trusts you, the more you'll be able to lead change. The more there is suspicion and lack of trust, the more difficult it becomes.”

Along the same vein, Fielkow believes fleet managers should approach the aftermath of a crash with sensitivity.

“We are holding our frontline employees to a standard that none of us can meet. And we wonder why there's such a lack of trust. Trust is at the foundation of not just a safety culture, but a company culture. A better way to look at how to handle safety issues is this: you’re human. Humans make mistakes,” Fielkow explained. “Was it an honest mistake or was it reckless behavior? Most safety failures, in fact, are honest mistakes. So you don't sit across the table from the employee and discipline them. You sit side by side, like an athlete reviewing the game film, and you document. I'm not saying you ignore it. You document, you look for systemic failures, you look for individual training.”

Avoiding Surface Level Compliance

Compliance with industry standards and regulations does not always mean your fleet is operating as safely as it can.

“Regulations spell out the bare minimum. They’re the least you’ve got to do to get by. Safety goes way beyond compliance,” Fielkow said.

In one example, he highlighted the 2014 crash that severely injured comedian Tracy Morgan and his passengers when a semi-truck rolled over their limousine.

In their review of the crash, safety regulators determined the truck driver was legal in his hours of service. But what they didn’t know is that the driver had just come off of an over 13-hour drive with no stops before climbing into his truck. The driver had not slept in over 24 hours. This wasn’t something that could be regulated.

“While compliance is important, behavior is what drives safety. And safety, at the end of the day, will not bubble up organically,” Fielkow said. “Safety must be leader driven.”

Understanding the Rules of Engagement

When new fleet operators are hired, it’s important they understand the ground rules in safety culture from day one.

“You can't hire a mind-reader. You can't assume that your employees know your rules of engagement,” Fielkow noted. “What are the things that you don't want your employees to learn the hard way? What are the things that you want to tell them right away, so they understand your rules of engagement? You cannot assume that their past employer or the past 10 employers had the same rules. It doesn't work that way.”

"Safety, at the end of the day, will not bubble up organically. Safety must be leader driven.”

Simplifying a Safety Culture

Safety, at its core, is a simple concept. Over-complicating your fleet’s safety strategy can have the opposite effect you’re trying to achieve.

Fielkow admitted that his previous company’s employee handbook was, at one point, a mess. How are employees expected to understand standard safety operating procedures if they’re reading them from a difficult-to-understand guide?

The solution Fielkow’s team came up with was to give the drivers and mechanics a say in what was in the handbook. That was a game-changer, he recalled.

“We took areas that we wanted to cover in the handbook, we pulled together employees that we thought were best in the area, and we put them in a room with a good writer,” Fielkow explained. “The handbook was accompanied by pictures and charts. It was understandable.”

The Cost of a Lack of Safety

When it comes to safety technology, there’s a lot for fleet managers to choose from, as suppliers begin to offer more safety solutions like advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), speed limiters, automatic emergency braking (AEB), and other technologies. While expensive up-front, these investments can save lives.

Public sector fleet managers are often strained by a lack of funding or long approval processes for unbudgeted purchases, but they must consider the consequences of not working to bring stakeholders onboard with their safety goals.

“If you think safety is expensive, consider the cost of the opposite,” Fielkow said.

While insurance may help cover the cost of a replacement vehicle, there are other costs that must be factored in. Those can include rehiring costs if your fleet operator is unable to return to work, as well as training for the new fleet operator, legal fees, and more. It can also cost your fleet its good reputation.

Bottom line, safety is worth investing in — both financially and within your overall operations.

“Safety is the core to operational excellence. If you get safety right, a lot of other things are going right,” Fielkow said.

About the author
Christy Grimes

Christy Grimes

Senior Editor

Christy Grimes is a Senior Editor at Bobit, working on Automotive Fleet Government Fleet publications.

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