Transportation Safety: Landstar Shines with 'Outside-the Box' Thinking

Call the Jacksonville, Fla., main office of transportation services company Landstar System Inc. and the first thing you hear is this automated greeting: "Thank you for calling Landstar, where safety comes first."

It's not just PR. In fact, when you have about 8,700 trucks on the road every day, a safety-first mindset is a fundamental corporate responsibility, explains Vice President and Chief Compliance, Security and Safety Officer Joe Beacom.

"I think the emphasis on safety is really a function of what business we're in," Beacom says. "We're in the business of operating commercial vehicles up and down the highways. The ingredient, the thing we sell, is our safety culture and our service level. The two are integrally entwined. You really can't have one without the other."

Landstar which recently was named to Forbes magazine's Platinum 400 List of the Best Big Companies in America for the seventh straight year has a compelling safety story to sell. From its rigorous driver selection process to its outside-the-box ideas for getting safety messages across to its work force, the company can comfortably throw around maxims such as, "if we can't do it safely, we don't do it."

Landstar Drivers Aren't Employees

Considering that highway incidents have been the leading cause of work-related injuries for all 12 years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries there were 1,374 fatal highway incidents in 2004 a safety-first mentality is an appropriate tack for transportation services companies such as Landstar.

But Landstar has an additional challenge: Its 8,000 or so truck owners are not employees of the company.

"Landstar is a non-asset provider of transportation services," Beacom explains. "So essentially that means while we put 8,700 trucks on the road every day, we don't own any of the trucks and we don't employ any of the drivers who drive those trucks."

That has proven to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Landstar drivers the company calls them "business capacity owners," or BCOs are able to pick and choose the loads they want, while the company's numerous awards from customers and trade associations speak to the quality of service Landstar BCOs have delivered.

But with a work force of independent contractors spread out across the United States and Canada, how does Landstar go about crafting and implementing a cohesive safety strategy?

Safety Starts with Rigorous Selection Process

It's a multi-faceted process, answers Beacom, but it begins with rigorous standards for selecting BCOs.

Before a BCO even can be considered, they must be at least 23 years old and have at least 1 year of professional driving under their belt. From there, Landstar conducts a thorough background check that includes looking at an applicant's driving and criminal histories.

"We choose not to bring on far more [BCOs] than we actually do bring on," Beacom notes.

Once a BCO joins the Landstar team, the company requires them to attend a 2-day orientation session which is offered at 10 different locations across the country that includes instruction on defensive driving, hauling hazardous materials, vehicle maintenance, regulatory compliance and other safety-related issues.

After 120 days, Landstar requires BCOs to return for a 1-day review session, which is organized in a small-group format "with a lot of Q&A" and sharing of best practices, Beacom says.

In most cases, retired BCOs are the ones providing the training which, Beacom notes, gives the instructors a great deal of credibility. "People know nobody's going to BS them."

'You Have to Think Outside the Box'

Landstar's BCOs sign up for loads on an intranet site, a concept Beacom calls "non-forced dispatch." It gives drivers the ultimate in scheduling autonomy "If they want to be home and be off for a week, that's fine with us" but you can imagine the logistical challenges of delivering a cohesive safety strategy to such an independent, mobile work force.

That's why Beacom admits: "When you're a non-asset company with independent contractors, you have to think outside the box."

That kind of thinking is evident in initiates such as Safety Thursdays.

For the past 14 1/2 years, Landstar has held a nationwide conference call on the third Thursday of every month. The Safety Thursday Conference Call is open to Landstar employees there are about 1,200 of them BCOs, sales agents and customers as well as federal and state officials and other stakeholders.

President and CEO Henry Gerkens launches each call with a discussion on a predetermined safety topic which could range from defensive driving techniques to safe parking and then turns the call over to Beacom.

For roughly 1 hour, Beacom, other company officials and outside experts discuss that month's particular topic. In December, the topic of the Safety Thursday Conference Call was personal health.

"We had a doctor who specializes in occupational medicine in the transportation industry participate in the call," Beacom explains. One of the focuses of the conversation was high-blood pressure a big concern among truck drivers.

'Everybody is a Part of This Thing'

Landstar makes sure its gets the most out of the Safety Thursday Conference Calls by holding live events throughout the country during which Landstar drivers and other stakeholders participate in the calls via speaker phone.

"We might go to a truck stop and serve lunch and go through the information we're talking about on the call," Beacom says. "There would be handouts, flyers and materials for review."

Another way Landstar uses the conference calls to connect an otherwise disjointed work force is by having regional sales executives sponsor and organize each call.

"Everybody is a part of this thing," Beacom says. "It's one way to make safety seamless throughout the organization."

This is Part 1 in a series on safety in the most dangerous industries and occupations. In Part 2, we will detail more of Landstar's safety initiates, including its awards/incentives program.

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