5 self-audit steps needed to ramp up carrier compliance

Regulatory compliance

As businesses around the country restart operations, talk has shifted to the steps necessary to ensure the safety of their employees. For many, the changes are drastic — 6-foot social distancing, constant cleaning and even work from home. But for the trucking industry, a return to normal means a return to regulatory compliance.

While the reality is that compliance never disappeared, in many jurisdictions, and for many regulations, it has been relaxed or suspended entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. States of emergency are winding down, and so too are the exemptions.

As freight picks up and wheels start turning again, drivers, safety managers and dispatchers may need refresher courses on regulations and fleets may need to review policies to ensure continued regulatory compliance, compliance specialists J. J. Keller & Associates advised.

This is especially true for a number of regulations that were suspended during the pandemic. These include hours-of-service (HOS) regulations for certain drivers and operations, commercial driver’s license (CDL) training and testing, and drug and alcohol testing programs.

J. J. Keller recommended carrier operations review these three key areas to ensure compliance, and offers two additional steps necessary for safe operations.

Driver qualifications and licensing

Recognizing the important role truck drivers would play in securing the supply chain during the pandemic, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration provided waivers for several driver-related rules early on. Among these was an exemption from driver medical card renewals, giving drivers until June 30, 2020, to seek renewal if their card expired on March 1, 2020, or later, provided the driver’s medical card was valid for 90 days or longer.

CDL or commercial learner’s permit (CLP) holders should be carrying a hard copy of their medical card to show proof of their latest exam, but drivers should be aware that, as of May 20, 2020, this exemption was on track to expire on June 30, 2020, reverting back to the previous medical card requirements.

“For medical certifications that expired under the waiver, DOT exams should be scheduled with a Certified Medical Examiner (CME) as soon as possible to avoid the potential rush at the end of June,” Mark E. Schedler, senior editor at J. J. Keller, advised.

Also, many state Department of Motor Vehicle offices have been closed or offered only limited access, so drivers may not have certified their latest exam, renewed their CDL properly, or seen convictions reported on their records. J. J. Keller suggested fleets rerun any motor vehicle record (MVR) checks that were conducted during the shutdowns to ensure licenses and violation records are current.

This is also true for drivers hired during the emergency declaration, which went into effect on March 13 and runs through June 14. Those drivers hired to exclusively haul direct assistance loads (which were exempt from many regulations) under Parts 390 through 399 (including Part 391-DQ) may not have been thoroughly vetted, so all driver qualification checks should be conducted.

“In the event of an injury or fatality crash, a jury will not consider the emergency declaration or DMV closures as valid reasons for an inadequately qualified or unqualified driver on the road,” Schedler said. “To avoid a claim of negligent hiring, a fleet should audit each DQ file of drivers hired during the declaration period and amid the closures and limited operations of DMVs and clinics.”

Finally, any driver whose hazmat endorsement expired after March 1, 2020, and before July 31, 2020, should begin the renewal process, which must be started at least 60 days before the extended expiration date. Hazmat retraining — required every three years — should also be conducted for any employee whose training was delayed, as allowed under an exemption from the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Drug and alcohol testing

While COVID-19 didn’t remove preemployment drug testing or return-to-duty test requirements for drivers, it did result in some testing delays for existing drivers. Closed facilities or limited hours were among the challenges fleets and drivers faced when complying with testing requirements. As a result, many may have taken advantage of delays or postponed testing when possible.

For situations where tests were delayed or missed, fleets should document the reasons and also record any refusal due to COVID-19 concerns for any drivers. This is especially important for any refusal that was not treated as a positive test result, J. J. Keller said.

Some fleets may have also delayed mandatory random testing. The FMCSA’s random 50% test rate for drugs and 10% test rate for alcohol remains in effect. If, however, a fleet has not conducted random testing during the respective draw period, or testing has been limited, carriers and/or their drug testing compliance providers need to ensure the minimum test targets will be reached and adjust testing schedules accordingly.

“Always document good-faith efforts to get the random tests accomplished within the draw periods or document the circumstances for any test not conducted within DOT or FMCSA requirements,” Schedler advised.  

HOS/ELD compliance

One of the biggest exemptions FMCSA issued was related to hours-of-service regulations. Extended through June 14, 2020, the exemption grants emergency relief from Parts 390 through 399, including HOS rules, for drivers hauling “essential supplies, equipment and persons.”

Schedler noted that shipments that were for routine replenishment, even if essential supplies were hauled, were not covered under the emergency declaration.

“Any documentation or emails that a shipper provided to show the urgency of the shipment or that the volume was above normal will help document a carrier’s use of the emergency declaration for hours-of-service exemption purposes,” he said.

As drivers transition back under HOS regulations, fleets should offer a refresher course on the requirements, including use of personal conveyance, yard moves, how to make proper edits, login/logout procedures and overall compliance.

Fleets should also have been documenting those drivers running under these exemptions and ensure that paperwork is accurate and up to date to prove necessary compliance with all regulations.

Truck/trailer sanitization processes

As businesses reopen, state and local governments are requiring strict sanitization processes to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This applies to freight transportation as well.

For fleets that have been hauling products requiring refrigeration, there are specific guidelines surrounding sanitization. These are covered in the Sanitary Transportation of Human and Animal Food rule. Customers may have additional contractual requirements and fleets need to be able to answer questions related to their sanitization practices and show documentation supporting those practices. These extend to employee training, trailer temperature monitoring and reporting of unsafe food conditions.

When it comes to drivers, fleets should ensure they are protected and have proper personal protective equipment and cleaning kits for their vehicles and equipment. For slip-seating operations, this adds another level of concern and carriers should document and communicate the plan for ensuring safety.

Disaster/emergency planning

As many fleets have learned over the past few months, disaster and emergency planning is an essential part of ensuring smooth operations during disruptive times. For many fleets, though, disaster plans didn’t exist, leaving them to “make it up as they went along.”

The good news is they now have developed such a plan, so documenting what went right and what went wrong, as well as formalizing a plan for future events based on this experience, is the right next step, J. J. Keller advised.

This plan will guide a carrier through extreme weather events, medical emergencies or even a pandemic. Putting into writing what has been learned and conducting regular training on how to execute the plan could ensure smooth operations the next time.

J. J. Keller recommended cross-training personnel, building and maintaining the infrastructure necessary — including backup capabilities — to support remote workers. Training of employees should support online components so critical information and training can be dispensed quickly and effectively without the need to route drivers back to a terminal.

Finally, maintain a culture of communication and transparency. This can include social media, driver town halls, video calls, podcasts, website updates and other communication networks.