If there's one area of van management that is bound to get everyone yawning and trying to change the subject, it must be health and safety at work. The very phrase tends to conjure up images of jobsworths with clipboards telling everyone what they can and can't do at work and poking their noses into areas they know nothing about, coming up with ludicrous ideas that will never see the light of day.
It's a shame because H&S at work does matter; it’s a foolhardy van fleet manager indeed who ignores it. An accident, either in the yard or on the road, can have disastrous consequences for the firm involved and the people who are injured. In extreme cases, it could even mean the end of your company.
Behind it all hangs the spectre of the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007, which opens the way for company directors to be prosecuted in the event of a fatal accident.
So what should safety-minded fleet managers do to ensure their staff are kept from harm, without going to ridiculous extremes? Here we offer 10 top tips...
1 Train your drivers The benefits of driver training are not easy to quantify, but that doesn't mean to say it should be ignored. Training comes in various forms; everything from on-road sessions with an expert to simple online assessments.
Some of your drivers may not need any training at all while others may need a great deal. Rather than having a blanket arrangement to train everyone in the same way — which can lead to animosity from the good guys — it is important to sort out the bad guys by highlighting the ones who use the most fuel and cause the most damage, and concentrate on them.
2 Clear up rubbish Go out into your yard if you have one and take a look around. Chances are you'll find all kinds of detritus lying around which could cause injury to one of your staff. Stuff such as this should be cleared away immediately.
Then look into the cabs of each of your vans. Once again, they will probably be full of accumulated rubbish such as old copies of The Sun, sandwich boxes, tools et al. Once again all these items should be chucked out or stashed away so they won't cause harm in the event of an accident.
You'd be amazed how even small items such as mobile phones can cause damage in a crash. We even heard of a case recently where, in an accident, a loose metal first aid box flew across the cab and caused a nasty head injury to the driver; how ironic is that?
3 Load cargo safely All cargo should be either strapped in securely or tucked away in proper racks. This is especially true of flatbed trucks, where too often we see cement mixers, pipes and the like simply dumped in the cargo area with no tie-downs at all. In the event of a crash, passers-by could be seriously injured or even killed.
4 Choose vans with safety in mind Many people, when choosing which new vans to buy, ignore safety factors and go for more obvious goodies like fancy stereos and sat nav units. It's a sad fact that when you sell your vans, they won't make any more money if they are loaded to the gills with safety systems, but they will certainly pay for themselves and more the first time your drivers avoid an accident.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC), which helps prevent sideways skids and has been lauded as the best safety invention since the seatbelt, is now a legal requirement on all new vans, but if you buy secondhand vehicles, make sure they have this wonderful device fitted.
Most big panel vans nowadays have full bulkheads fitted as standard but many of the smaller ones don't. In that case don't skimp on the options list. In the event of a crash, cargo will come flying forwards at an amazing speed and cause injury to anyone in the front of the van, so a solid steel bulkhead is an absolute must.
We also recommend the fitting of speed limiters (set at 70mph) so that drivers can't exceed the speed limit and risk accidents and fines.
If you really want to improve the health and safety of your firm then consider fitting air conditioning in your vans. It isn't exactly a safety device as such, but in the summer a cool driver is a safer and more alert driver so it could be argued that air con is a must-have item in your H&S armoury.
5 Give them time It is a well-known fact that many van drivers are dangerous on the roads because they are given too many deliveries to make in a day and can only keep on schedule by speeding. If your firm is guilty of this, then it needs to take a hard look at rescheduling its operation so that drivers won't be forced into breaking the law every day.
If there is a problem in this area then we recommend buying in a telematics package that will help identify the best and most efficient routes. It will cost a bit at the front-end, but all the experts agree that with telematics on board, fleets will start saving money hand over fist within six months.
6 Top up washer bottles This may sound like a trifling matter, but it's important to make sure that windscreen washer bottles are kept topped up; and with proper screenwash too, not just water.
This is especially important when several people drive the same van as it may easily be overlooked. Run out of screenwash on a dirty winter day and the driver runs the risk of crashing or even running over a passing pedestrian. In the event of a death, be aware of the consequences of the Corporate Manslaughter Act as mentioned above.
7 Avoid budget tyres At a recent Mercedes-Benz Van Experience event, we saw three Sprinters belting up the track at 60mph, one with brand new standard tyres, one with new budget tyres and one with standard tyres that were only just legal. All three vans slammed the brakes on at the same time and the one with budget tyres stopped a good few yards after the other two; the difference between stopping safely and killing someone. Need we say more?
8 Promote sensible driving One surefire way of improving your H&S credentials is to employ a workforce that thinks safety all the time. That's not an easy thing to do if you have a bunch of drivers with a heavy right foot, but however difficult the task may be, it's essential to get the workers behind you. Firstly, get them all together and explain that you want to improve safety at work, not just for the benefit of the firm, but to help them too.
As a guarded threat you could suggest that if anyone in the room isn't happy to go along with your plans, they are free to leave and find alternative employment.
Get together a driver's handbook which sets out your expectations in simple terms and get them all to sign it to say that a) they have read it and b) they agree with its contents. That way, it will be easier to sack any persistent offenders.
Then produce a nice juicy carrot; say a prize at the end of each month for the safest or most fuel-efficient driver. Theatre tickets or a meal for two at a nice restaurant should do the trick. Any outgoings will be recouped many times over, believe us, not just in better safety at work but in lower fuel bills too.
9 Maintenance matters We mentioned windscreen washer bottle earlier, but don't forget items such as oil, water and brake fluid too, as a breakdown could leave drivers at risk by the roadside, not to mention any valuable cargo they may be carrying.
10 Check Tyres Last, but not least, don't forget those round black things that are the only contact between your vans and the road; it's amazing how many people never check their pressures and tread depths. There should be a visual check each morning and a proper pump check each week.
Using worn and wrongly-inflated tyres are a sure way of risking a crash. They are illegal too, so once again in the event of a fatality, you, the employer, will face questions from the police who may well decide to prosecute you under the Corporate Manslaughter Act.
Make no mistake. Health and Safety may not be the most interesting aspect of running a fleet of vans, but it’s an essential one. Continually shuffling it to the bottom of the pile could have dire consequences for both your staff and business.