Washington state labor investigation looks at carrier’s APUs

| 10/1/2009

Washington authorities cited and fined one large motor carrier this summer after finding that the carrier didn’t provide consistent in-cab heat for a company driver.

Gordon Trucking of Pacific, WA, was fined $1,000 in June by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. The state alleged that Gordon didn’t ensure its company practices were adequate to make the workplace safe.

“Employees aren’t provided a means to keep warm in cold temperatures at high altitudes while driving delivery trucks,” the citation read. “Employee truck idle is automatically disabled after approximately five minutes.”

Gordon equips many of its long-haul trucks with bunk heaters and APUs. The complaint alleged that when the truck was parked above about 4,900 feet, the APU heater didn’t work, leaving the driver in the cold.

“Employees could be seriously injured with frostbite, hypothermia, or even death,” the complaint said.

Elaine Fischer, spokeswoman with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, said Gordon Trucking proved that the state could not show any incident occurred while the truck was parked in Washington, bringing into question whether the state had jurisdiction.

The state later dropped the case after Gordon Trucking appealed, but a state labor spokeswoman said it would investigate and pursue similar claims if they’re reported.

“We could certainly look into it if it’s for work being performed in our state,” Fischer said. “It’s up to the employer to assess hazards their employees might encounter in the workplace.”

Joe Rajkovacz, OOIDA regulatory affairs specialist, said the labor complaint could be just the first of many as companies prevent idling to save diesel and comply with an increasing number of local truck idling limits.

He said it is important to recognize the complaint was dismissed on a technicality after the state couldn’t prove any violation had occurred within Washington’s borders.

“That said, it is encouraging that the state of Washington is recognizing an obligation the motor carrier has for ensuring the health and safety of their employed drivers,” Rajkovacz said. “While anti-idling laws have spread around the nation, the response of many motor carriers is to tell their employee drivers to shut the truck off or actuate automated five minute engine shutdowns. The comfort and safety of drivers and their ability to get meaningful restorative rest is adversely affected by temperature extremes.”

Rajkovacz said motor carriers that don’t invest in anti-idling technology remind him of the Virginia Department of Transportation, which said earlier this year that truckers should “get a room,” rather than spend federally mandated sleeper time at rest stops.

“The bottom line is, drivers should absolutely file complaints with the appropriate state agency when their motor carrier has shown such a callous disregard for their health and safety,” Rajkovacz said.

Kirk Altrichter, Gordon Trucking’s vice president of maintenance, said the company has APUs on more than 500 of its 1,400 tractors. That percentage is significant because many major motor carriers don’t outfit their trucks with APUs at all.

Gordon has made APUs a priority for in-cab comfort and to comply with idling restrictions in places like California, which has a five-minute idling limit, he said.

The APU from the state’s complaint “does not work well above 5,000 feet,” Altrichter said.

“The real issue is – how often do you operate at altitudes like that?” Altrichter said.

If the APU isn’t working, Altrichter said the company has a process by which drivers can get equipment repaired.

Otherwise, drivers “can keep restarting the engine, but it will shut off.”

Altrichter also took issue with Washington’s complaint that the carrier didn’t supply a backup system to help drivers heat their cabs.

“How many trucks out there have a backup system?” he said. “Now we need a backup for the backup?”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer