Chemical truck driver describes life on the road

A trucker's life

11 September 2008 14:01  [Source: ICB]

Correction: in the article headlined "Chemical truck driver describes life on the road," please read "global polymers producer Borealis," instead of "Austrian polymers producer Borealis" and "global company DHL Logistics," instead of "US-headquartered DHL Logistics." A corrected story follows: 

Chemical tanker drivers transport hazardous goods on crowded roads. They are also governed by increasingly complex legislation. We spent a day with one to find out more

Listen to Will Beacham's account of his day in a special report on ICIS radio: Keep on truckin'

HOW MUCH do you know about the people that collect your raw materials and deliver finished goods by road? Have you ever wondered what motivates or bothers them about their work?

We wanted to see what life is like for a chemical tanker driver, and present here excerpts from 3.5 hours in the cab. You can listen to highlights of the trip by clicking on this player and read the story below it.

One wet July morning, I climbed, tentatively, up into the cab of a 44-tonne chemical tanker operated by global company DHL Logistics to pull more than 20 tonnes of phenol across the spine of England, from Middlesbrough in the Northeast to a facility operated by US chemical company Chemtura, in Manchester, in the Northwest.

Phenol is a particularly nasty chemical. It causes severe chemical burns on contact and can quickly prove fatal if washing and medical treatment are not carried out quickly.

I needn't have worried. Stan Farren has been driving trucks for 15 years. I felt safe with him throughout the journey, even when we had crossed the Pennine hills and started our descent. As we headed downhill, you could feel the tonnage of the full tank of phenol bearing down on us, the lorry's speed limiter struggling to cope.

Tell me about this truck and how it is adapted to carry phenol:

It's a three-axle Scania [R420], 420 horse power, pulling a three-axle trailer, which is three years old. A lot of companies lease rather than buy the vehicles. It's done 350,000km (217,480 miles) and is very well maintained. It goes in for a service every five weeks.

Phenol is transported at 58°C [136.4°F], but it freezes at 39-40°C, becoming like concrete. So it's a temperature-controlled tanker with 4-5 inches (10cm-12.7cm) of insulation. It loses 1°C/day in summer, maybe a bit more in winter. If it drops too much, there are steam coils that can be connected up.

What journey will we do today?

Today we're going from Middlesbrough to Trafford Park in Manchester. Normally this takes about 2.5 hours, but with the roads today it can take up to four hours. If there is a bit of rain as you leave you can more or less guarantee there'll be accidents on the M62, which will hold you up. UK roads are getting to the point of silliness. They need to bring in speed limits and restrict vehicles to 40-50 mph [64-80 km/h] in the rush hour.

Do you manage to keep fit with this sedentary job?

We tend to be stationary at work and it's the same when you're sat at home - you get very little exercise. This is especially true with tankers because you're not putting cargo on by hand, you're not roping and sheeting loads down. All you do is connect a pipe to a valve, so there's not a lot of manual work.

So I thought recently: 20 minutes cycling to work and back each day would be good. I only need 20 minutes' rest to I get my breath back!

Traffic congestion must be a big factor in making your life more difficult?

"Rush hour" is a bit of a euphemism, because nowadays it lasts from 6.30am to about 9.30am - a three-hour rush hour. Lunch time is quite busy, then you've got another rush hour lasting from 3pm until 6.30pm.

Then, any time there's an accident you've got congestion. The roads are really shocking these days. Setting off at 10am, like we are today, is the optimum time, really. Usually, you get to within 10 miles of Manchester and then the last 10 miles can take you 1.5 hours.

What precautions do you need to take when dealing with phenol?

[Skin exposure to high amounts of phenol, otherwise known as carbolic acid, can produce skin burns, liver damage, dark urine, irregular heart beat, and even death. It is used primarily in the production of phenolic resins and in the manufacture of nylon and other synthetic fibers. It is also used in slimicides (chemicals that kill bacteria and fungi in slimes), as a disinfectant and antiseptic, and in medicinal preparations such as mouthwash and sore throat lozenges.]

If you spill a cupful on yourself you'll be dead in 20 minutes. You clean it off with a glycol mixture then go to hospital for treatment. You have to wear a full protective suit like a space suit when you're loading.

What training have you done and does it have to be updated?

I was sent out with experienced drivers, and given videos on safety aspects. Otherwise it's just experience, really. We all have to do an ADR (Carriage of Dangerous Goods) license course - this gives you a license to transport chemicals, such as corrosives, flammables and gases. We have to renew that every five years. As drivers, we are responsible for the wagon, for making sure that everything is safe before you leave. The company must give you the safety equipment and training to carry out the job. The training is useful.

Who are your customers and where do you deliver to?

We carry phenol for three companies: the main one is global polymers producer Borealis. It manufactures overseas, the phenol gets brought into Teesport by ship and we collect and distribute it. There're only about 10 customers in the country who use phenol.

Do you enjoy the job?

I wouldn't say I enjoy it - I'd rather have more leisure time and less time at work, but as a job, once you leave the depot there's no-one looking over you - you're your own boss really. It's difficult to contact me by telephone: for safety reasons it's linked to the handbrake - when the handbrake's off the phone won't work.

It's an easy job to do. I was self-employed, manufacturing furniture and unfortunately went bankrupt 15 years ago. To find a way of feeding the family and keeping a roof over our heads, I took a course in driving a Heavy Goods Vehicle [UK driving test], thinking it would tide me over for a couple of years. Fifteen years later, I'm still at it! In a car, you can drive for hundreds of miles through the countryside and all you see is a hedge. The high driving position here is great - you've got nice open views of the countryside. It's a window on the world - you can see all the nasty habits of car drivers. I've seen some sights you wouldn't be able to print!

It's more relaxed in a truck because of the [slow] speed you're going. You've got more time to react to things. It's all power steering so it's very relaxing to drive. Even when it's raining and the road is covered in spray, you're that little bit above it.

I see drivers tearing their hair out when they come to a traffic jam. You just have to drink a cup of coffee and think of England because there's nothing you can do. There's no point getting stressed.

How has the Working Time Directive (WTD) affected you? [A raft of national and pan-European legislation governs the health and safety aspects of chemical transport. Most recently, the EU's WTD was applied to drivers, placing yet more restrictions on their driving hours. But the impact has been minimized by employers' clever use of a loophole in the legislation. Instead of keeping strictly to a 48-hour week, drivers record periods when they're not driving as "periods of availability," which do not count towards the 48.]

WTD hasn't made much difference to my earnings. We get paid for the mileage we do, so it works out we get more than the hours we actually work. Some drivers working at DHL are on £40,000 ($75,000, €50,000) or more - that's not difficult to do. We're probably working fewer hours than we used to. A lot of companies used to break the law, but they're clamping right down on that. All modern vehicles have a digital tachograph [device for monitoring driver's hours and speed driven].


The Working Time Directive (WTD) and rocketing fuel costs are the main worries for DHL Special Products, Billingham's operations manager Mark Stephenson, and health, safety and environment manager Colin Williams.

Despite the clever use of "periods of availability," Williams concedes: "Operationally, the WTD has caused us headaches. We've had to employ up to 20 drivers on the night shift compared to 12 previously. To extend your working day, you now need more drivers: we have an average of 78."

The depot turns over £12m/year in chemicals, and boasts a fleet of 50 tractors and 100 tankers. The decline of chemical industry manufacturing in the UK has not resulted in a downturn for business, says Williams: "It means that more chemicals are manufactured abroad and shipped to coastal storage for distribution. We still collect it and deliver to the existing customers."

Unsurprisingly, fuel costs have rocketed in recent months, though these have been passed on to customers. Says Williams: "In the last six months, fuel costs have risen by more than 10%. But when we tender for a contract, we put in a fuel-tracker system. Fuel is now around 36% of our costs - it used to be 32%."


Number of deliveries per annum: 34,000

Weight of chemicals carried: 900,000 tonnes

Miles driven: 6.6m

Number of tractors: 50

Number of tankers: 100

Annual turnover (2007): £12m ($21m, €15m)

Number of drivers: An average of 78

Hear Will Beacham's account of his trip

By: Will Beacham
+44 20 8652 3214

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