By Charlie Morasch,staff writer
In a New Jersey instant, Ray Lawson’s life nearly ended.
Lawson, an OOIDA life member from Kenosha, WI, suffered massive injuries in late January when he fell from a tanker that had been pelted with freezing rain and snow.
Balancing himself while helping load chemicals into the top of a tanker near Rahway, NJ, Lawson took a step and slipped. In an instant, he dropped, bouncing off the container’s side and slamming into a concrete curb.
The fall broke six of his ribs, two vertebrae, his wrist in two places, his arm in one spot, and fractured an ankle. Ray had temporary vision problems. He’s fortunate it wasn’t worse.
“The doctors were pretty much of the feeling that I’m lucky I wasn’t hurt worse,” Lawson told Land Line Magazine. “I certainly could have been killed.”
The week before Lawson’s fall, he read a Land Line online article about Larry Hughes, a veteran driver who fell from a container in dry conditions near Los Angeles. Hughes died immediately after falling in mid-January – one day before his 64th birthday.
Both falls illustrate the inherent danger drivers face daily while climbing containers, flatbeds and even onto trailers. The fatalities and injuries drivers suffer also highlight a deep divide between workplace safety for truckers and recent state laws requiring snow and ice removal from trailers.
The issue of truck drivers being injured and killed as a result of falls has drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In a proposed rule, OSHA has made noise about addressing “fall protection” for anyone climbing above the 4-foot barrier of truck trailers, flatbeds and containers.
As a separate incident in New Jersey proved, the federal government has good reason to watch states.
New Jersey law
All of a sudden, New Jersey began enforcing its snow removal law in January – when the state was battling its worst winter in more than a decade.
“Who would have thought that the first year to apply a law of this nature, we would get the winter from hell?” said Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association.
The winter’s harsh conditions have proved just how dangerous snow removal laws can be for truckers.
In late January, a policeman from the New York/New Jersey Port Authority pulled over several cars and at least one truck in Moonachie, NJ, after one of several snowstorms covered the Garden State.
A truck driven by a company driver from Beverly, NJ-based Gray Trucking was pulled over and issued a $25 ticket on Jan. 28.
Bob Gray, owner of Gray Trucking, said he arranged for the estimated four inches of snow to be safely removed at a Ryder facility two blocks away. The company would pay its fine later and the truck could be on its way.
According to Gray, however, the officer said if the driver pulled away without removing the snow on the spot, he would be cited for contempt and arrested.
“For this police officer to make my driver get on the roof of that truck in these conditions is absurd. It’s criminal,” Gray said. “He could have driven two blocks and safely gotten the snow off.”
A nearby shipper dropped off a ladder, shovel and broom so the driver could climb on top of the trailer and sweep off the snow.
Though New Jersey’s law says it will be enforced on truck and trailer operators who possessed the equipment during the weather event, Gray Transportation didn’t pick the trailer up until the morning of Jan. 28. Before that morning, the trailer had been in possession of a New Jersey shipper.
Toth was outraged that the driver wasn’t allowed to drive two blocks to safely remove the snow.
“This just dredges up a lot of questions,” Toth told Land Line Magazine. “It’s not that we don’t want to clean off our roofs. It’s that there are situations that make it impossible for us to do so safely.
“We have created a situation that was a concern of mine from the beginning,” Toth said. “There will be more people hurt, maimed and possibly killed in their attempts to comply with this law than there would have been from snow falling from trucks.”
At press time, Toth was contacting state officials to try and start a dialogue with truck owners, police and others to discuss enforcement of the state’s snow removal law.
“We’re going to try and get some clarification on this before someone gets killed,” Toth said.
One week after the ticket was issued, Gray was still upset that his driver was forced to risk his life in order to please the officer.
“My driver is a great guy – a real professional,” Gray said. “But the attitude of this officer made the entire situation unsafe. At what point does common sense supersede the law?”
Gray’s driver, who asked that he not be named, was not injured while climbing on top of his trailer.
OOIDA weighs in
Lawson, the OOIDA life member, wasn’t so fortunate.
The veteran owner-operator said he’ll be off the road for at least two months. Lawson said he is glad he wore his hardhat as well as a down-filled jacket and vest at the time of the fall.
“I get cold so easy, and it was cold enough I had to have both of those on,” said Lawson, 57. “I’ve never had a bad fall in my life.”
Lawson disagrees with the basis of New Jersey’s snow and ice law. He hopes other states studying their own versions of the law consider truck drivers’ safety.
“I’d be dead if that fall had been from a 13-and-a-half-foot-tall trailer,” Lawson said.
Truckers have seen several states move toward snow and ice removal laws that fail to acknowledge the risk truck drivers must face.
OOIDA questions whether sufficient statistics exist to prove whether falling snow and ice are a significant highway safety issue.
Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA director of regulatory affairs, said laws that may begin with earnest intentions to curb flying snow and ice from passenger cars and others have instead put a target on the back of truck drivers.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing yet another example of knee-jerk legislation that leads to unintended consequences,” Rajkovacz said. “Accumulating snow and ice on a moving vehicle during a winter storm is an act of nature that all the good intentions in the world cannot eliminate.”
“None of these state laws have balanced the actual safety risk to truckers attempting to comply with these laws versus the much smaller risk to other motorists,” Rajkovacz said.
Toth doesn’t understand why the state is willing to gamble with truckers’ lives when something as simple as a bit of driver education could solve the issue as well.
Illustrating the outrageousness of the state’s law, Toth said the solution may be as simple as posting stickers on trailers and trucks.
“If you see snow on my roof – stay back!” she said. “Who knows.” LL