INDUSTRY COMMENT: Just in time for a rethink

By: Steve Skinner


The coronavirus crisis has highlighted how ridiculous ‘Just in Time’ logistics has become, so why is the national trucking regulator arguably making it even easier for customers to push drivers?

INDUSTRY COMMENT: Just in time for a rethink
Are drivers pushed too hard?

There are hopefully a few positive things emerging for the Australian trucking industry from the virus crisis.

One is increased respect from the general public for what the trucking industry does. An ABC radio program even recently described truckies as the "unsung heroes" of the pandemic. A pity its website has a photo obviously taken in Europe of trucks driving on the wrong side of the road.

Another positive thing is less single-occupant cars clogging up the roads in peak hours. Hopefully both employers and employees will realise there is huge scope for many people to continue working from home, at least part of the time.

When this is all over governments should further encourage remote working by bringing in congestion taxes on cars in CBDs, which according to the Grattan Institute would mostly hit better-off motorists and have benefits long distances away.

Then there is the virus crisis highlighting the fact that ‘Just in Time’ logistics has gone mad.

Who really needs any item from the supermarket right here and now? Who needs that online-ordered dog toy tomorrow? And considering what the nation is currently going through, is it really the end of the world if that box of car parts or that pallet of cheese arrives in a couple of days rather than overnight?

What driver enjoys the pressure of having the warehouse guys revving up their forklifts in anticipation before ripping open the curtains when you have barely backed onto the dock?

Further, using shipping containers and the back of trucks as mobile warehouses is a risky strategy. Companies worked out long ago that not storing products on-site saves them money in inventory costs when everything is going smoothly. This might produce fat bonuses for executives, but as we are all now discovering, it doesn’t take much to disrupt the JIT supply chain very quickly.

Heaven forbid if anything disrupts our embarrassingly low stocks of diesel. The Australian Trucking Association certainly doesn’t think the Government’s recent plan to lease oil reserve space in the United States is a fast enough back-up.

‘Advanced’ Fatigue Management?

Which leads us onto the issue of how much or how little governments should get involved in "Just in Time" (JIT) logistics in the public interest.

At the very least most in the trucking industry agree there have to be rules regulating work hours for truck drivers.

Before reading on remember this: old eastern logbooks used to allow two hours work on top of 12 hours driving as standard.

The authorities have made criminals out of anyone fudging the current 12-hour book if they don’t include loading/unloading time; and often penalise drivers with steep fines if they accidentally write in a mistake. Yet you can do exactly the same things perfectly legally on a 14-hour Basic Fatigue Management (BFM) work diary. But hands up who thinks drivers on this BFM system are safer and healthier – and with better sleeping conditions – than someone on the standard 12 hours?

Considering the almost total lack of flexibility with both the 12 and 14-hour logbooks, can anyone explain why the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) is actually encouraging operators to take up a system which allows drivers to work nearly 16 hours? And who really needs to be able to work up to 150 hours a fortnight?

This sort of stuff is allowed under AFM (Advanced Fatigue Management) being promoted by the NHVR. It would be interesting to know how many people involved with the NHVR have ever worked 16 hours in a single day/night, let alone anywhere near 150 hours in a fortnight. The standard working fortnight for most people in the workforce is less than 80 hours.

And the accreditation process looks open to a lot of discretion.

Apart from the likes of livestock carters who have animal welfare to keep in mind, and say remote operators who don’t want to be parked up in the middle of the Nullarbor for 24 hours, who on east coast linehaul for example really needs these sorts of hours?

Doesn’t it just pander to cowboy customers who then have a licence to stuff long-distance drivers around even more at their distribution centres, before telling them they still have to get to the other end by the same deadline? 

How much trust can we place in the honesty of some of the AFM operators in a recent NHVR survey which concluded there had been no fatigue-related incidents involving AFM operators in the previous 12 months?

Sure there are hours trade-offs and ‘countermeasures’ in the AFM system, but who is going to audit them in real life rather than just on paper provided by the operator, let alone do on-site spot checks of the claimed wonderful loading and unloading practices of customers? 

Remember that in the more than two decades that Chain of Responsibility on fatigue has been around, to the best of our knowledge there has never been a single prosecution of a customer. And there have been very few prosecutions of operators either.

It’s the driver who always gets whacked, and goes to jail if something goes wrong.

So perhaps the NHVR could think harder about whether it is inadvertently ratcheting up the pressure for drivers.

 

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