Friday, May 27, 2016

When the freight is out to get you

Flashback. That’s what I had when I read Mark Schremmer’s story in Land Line Magazine’s web news. Mark reported that driver Eugene Boone of Charlotte, N.C., died after a heavy bundle of cardboard fell on him as he opened the doors on his trailer one day in May. The massive bale crushed him.

That report took me back to a sunny spring morning 46 years ago at A-P-A Transport, the carrier I drove for. Dispatch gave me a load to Manhattan, huge rolls of paper for giant web presses. A freight bill on my clipboard meant the dock boss had signed off; the load was secured and ready to go.

At least that’s what it was supposed to mean.

The trailer was backed into a door on the west side of the terminal, an MB Mack city tractor under it and hooked up. I hopped in, plopped my clipboard on the engine-cover console, and started her up. I would pull away from the dock, I thought, walk back to close the swinging trailer doors, and then do my inspection.

When I pulled the Mack into gear and started forward, I felt a strange sensation. For the first instant, I could feel the weight of the load behind me. In the next instant, the truck rolled easily forward like an empty. I knew instinctively it was the paper rolling toward the back as the truck moved forward.

What I didn’t know was there was a dockman in the trailer, nailing down the chocks behind the last roll to hold them all for the ride across the Hudson to New York. I stopped, of course, just in time to see the dockman in my rearview, jumping crazily off the trailer toward the driver side, arms and legs akimbo, collapsing onto the rough macadam like an unstuffed scarecrow.

That’s when the first roll hit the ground, frighteningly close to the dockman, who was now scrambling on hands and knees to get away. I felt the impact as much as I heard it – all that weight falling from tailgate level. All six rolls would land on the pavement as the dockman turned, and in a sitting position watched.

No one was seriously hurt, thank God. The dock supervisor who had sent the freight bill to dispatch actually caught more flak than I did. The dockman was angry at me – and rightfully so. He said I should have looked into the trailer before I pulled out. If I didn’t understand that before those rolls hit the ground, I sure understood it after – never mind what the freight bill on the clipboard was supposed to mean.

But what impressed everyone that day was the immutable reality of those enormous, heavy rolls shaking the ground as they hit, one after another. If the dockman had been unable to scramble out of their way, they would have killed him. If they had rolled off somewhere else, they could have killed more than one person.

What we all understood, at least for that instant, was how mortal peril lurks in the most common circumstances, how lives, families, businesses can change in a single, unanticipated instant, and how all those boring safety meetings and the posters we ignore are trying to tell us something important.

It all came back as I read about the tragic death of Eugene Boone.

Trucking is a dangerous profession.

“Overall, transportation incidents accounted for 40 percent of fatal workplace injuries in 2014 (the most recent year for which stats are available),” says a Bureau of Labor Statistics press release. According to Forbes Magazine, truck driving is eighth on the list of the 10 deadliest jobs, behind fishermen and loggers, but ahead of power-line workers – the guys in those high buckets.

There’s a message here, of course, and you already know what it is. Even so, from time to time it bears repeating: Follow the rules, err on the side of caution, and for Pete’s sake be careful out there.