By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2018
A situation fraught with uncertainty makes us fret. So, it’s clarity we seek, though it’s not always easy to find. From hazmat expectations to vehicle registrations, keeping pace with the regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) demands a dual commitment: Keep looking. Be flexible.
“The DOT regulations seem to be ever-changing and can vary depending on whom you talk to—DOT officer or police officer,” says Brett Frey, owner of Mobile Works LLC in Chambersburg, PA. “Stay educated through online federal sites or with a local DOT officer.” Also consider third-party help. “We pay a consulting firm to handle all of our DOT paperwork,” says Frey. “Filing the correct papers and keeping us up-to-date on payments is the firm’s role.”
Consultants are cost-effective, says Frey. “It costs us around $500 a year to use this company, but it is well worth it, considering it’s a $1,000 fine for not wearing a seatbelt.” DOT has the best interest of companies and communities in mind. Regulations improve outcomes for
everyone. A properly operating vehicle with all required safety features, recommended pre-trip inspections, and so on contribute to a safer work environment, says Frey. Ensuring compliance is time well spent.
“Keeping up with all the changes and keeping records on all DOT matters is a must,” says Terry Murray, vice president, Etowah Chemical Sales and Service in Gadsden, AL. He also recommends assistance from a third party or an in-house team member who has a focused role in compliance.
“Hire an outside firm that specializes in DOT regulations or have someone designated as your DOT and safety officer, as DOT requires a full-time person or firm to keep up with changes,” says Murray.
Consultants can bring assurances regarding interpretation. “We use a retired DOT person to call on when we need a breakdown on a certain DOT regulation or new regulation,” says Murray. “All regulations have their purpose,” says Murray. The difficult part for owners of businesses is that there are so many.
Yet there’s no question about the benefits. “Keeping up with the amount of time drivers are on the road—behind the wheel—really makes it safer, especially when hauling ‘corrosive’ materials,” says Murray, citing one example.
Seeking assistance and clarification from a third-party expert may help more than making an inquiry of the DOT itself. It’s possible to ask DOT a question about a chemical or detergent, for instance, and to get an answer, says Dean Fernholz, general manager and chemist at Hydrus Detergents in Graettinger, IA. The answer obtained, though, may be subject to change. Fernholz explains one can hear some vexing responses, such as, “We think this is correct, but the officer in the field disagrees, and his opinion is final.”
It can be frustrating to get to the precise expectation embodied in a regulation, says Fernholz. He adds that simply obtaining the best source of information, the individual within the department most able to provide an authoritative answer, can also be difficult.
Fernholz has found a method for getting reliable information that depends on a close working relationship with his hauler. “For several years now, I deal with the traffic people at the trucker company we intend to ship with and ask their opinion as to proper DOT paperwork required,” he explains.
The collaborative approach to sorting out applicable regulations has been a good one. “This way the trucker is involved before accepting the freight,” says Fernholz. “Since we went to this method, we have not had any problems with DOT and have gone through two no-problem inspections.”
Meeting DOT regulations is not an end in itself. Entities beyond federal regulators want to know that a company is in compliance. Insurers are one such entity. Before writing a policy, they run checks on prospective policy holders.
“The carriers contract with companies that they utilize to fully assess an account,” says Rikki Lee Concannon, manager at CSC Insurance Options in Belle Vernon, PA. “Carriers can, if necessary, require an insured to handle DOT discrepancies as a subjectivity of binding coverage.”
Think of the carriers, or insurers, as being one more check on the system. For businesses seeking vehicle insurance, the carrier can be a resource for the insurance seeker. “Once an insured has their letters of authority, the carrier will endeavor to meet their requirements as they are able to,” says Concannon.
Authority to operate is anything but a one-size-fits-all. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), which is part of the DOT, determines whether a carrier has authority to operate. It grants different types of authority with perhaps MC being the most familiar designation. Depending on where and how a company operates and what it carries in its vehicles, it may need more than one authority designation.
The authority designation from FMCSA is distinct from the DOT number. The good news is that since December 12, 2015, any applicant who has never registered with FMCSA or US DOT registers through a Unified Registration System (URS).
The URS is not a program of the FMCSA, the FMCSA emphasizes. It’s more of a transcendent entity, which was set up by the U.S. Congress after an agreement among states. The URS collects and distributes information and the registration fees it collects from motor carriers. It’s complicated.
When members of our industry advise colleagues to get third-party assistance, they are speaking from experience. Just determining whether a USDOT number is needed or not can be a challenge for contractors in our industry. The weight limit of a vehicle may indicate not (under 10,001 pounds gross weight), but what’s being transported in the vehicle is another determining factor.
A vehicle of any size that carries materials deemed hazardous under the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act must have a USDOT number. FMCSA provides an online response form to quickly determine whether the number is needed or not. (See www.fmcsa.dot.gov/registration/do-i-need-usdot-number.) Since January 1, 2005, hazardous materials safety permits (HMSP) have been required of any vehicle with an MC number (authority to operate) from FMCSA.
When professional organizations such as CETA, PWNA, and UAMCC stress the importance of hazmat training, they are giving the soundest advice possible to industry members. The civil and criminal penalties for a violation of hazardous materials regulations can reach $500,000 for a corporation and imprisonment up to five years.
Interstate trucking is regulated by the DOT. Intrastate trucking falls under the purview of OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]. The DOT preempts OSHA when any hazardous material is being transported whether the material is moving intrastate or interstate.
For manufacturers and distributors in our industry, DOT regulations loom large. Even for contractors who do not travel across state lines, the DOT may set standards with which they must comply if their vehicles weigh more than 10,001 pounds or hazardous materials are carried in vehicles.
Some contractors, distributors, and manufacturers will not fall under DOT jurisdiction but most will. The logistics of transport for manufacturers and distributors will determine whether DOT considers movement of goods interstate (DOT purview) or intrastate (OSHA purview). A distributor who sends his vehicle to an in-state warehouse to pick up products an out-of-state manufacturer has deposited there may fit the category of intrastate commerce—that is, unless some of the products fall into the hazardous materials category.
The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (ECFR.gov) is the place to read regulations and monitor changes as the notifications become available. Sign up for email updates to keep pace with what is happening in regulatory bodies. FMCSA offers subscriptions to updates on many different topics via https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/subscribe-email-updates, among them one on Hazardous Materials and another on Safety and Security.
When a vehicle is stopped for an inspection, the presentation of the driver and any documents the driver is asked to show can affect the interaction. Documents should be kept in an orderly way in a plastic sleeve or some other protective cover. Some contractors use shallow metal boxes.
It’s no longer just the condition of a vehicle and its contents that get attention from regulators. In most states, drivers must use seat belts and not use hands to hold a phone. Safety meetings with employees should cover the routine maintenance of a vehicle—from belts and mirrors to tires and wipers, as well as protocols for seat belt and phone use.
Owners can test the readiness of their employees for an inspection by doing a surprise inspection of their own. Are windshield and lights clean? Is a fire extinguisher accessible? Is the fire extinguisher operational? Does the driver have cones ready to put down? Yes, that’s all the easy part of staying compliant with USDOT and state DOT regulators, but if small things are discovered to be awry in a routine inspection, they can lead an inspector to become concerned about what else is not being done correctly.
From authority and commercial driver’s license standards to hours spent behind a wheel and incident reporting, DOT has broad jurisdiction that affects almost everyone in our industry.