The Life of a Commercial Truck Driver II
After a short break from commercial driving, during which I worked at an auto parts retail store, I found myself back in the chip haul trucks with the same company, specifically driving very short hauls back and forth from the chip plant to the big pulp mill in Escambia County. A neighbor, being the wood chip division supervisor suggested that I work a weekend night 12 hour shift, in which we supplied the transportation for this chip process operation. So now since the middle of last year I have climbed in and out of those chip trucks and trailers hundreds if not thousands of times. This just ended a couple of weeks ago, when I came back to the local yard for yet another assignment. So, let me tell the story of the short haul and maybe I will meander into my current duties towards the end. I feel its significant to notate when I end this Job description, so that one will not get confused of the two different duties, even though they are primarily hauling the same product, just to different mills, and under somewhat different rules.
I began by driving an hour each night to the chip mill and after finding a truck I would make sure my short haul logs were up to date and entries for all safety related items, as well as hours worked and hours spent on off-time duties. Other simple paperwork included a weekly pay sheet that logged the loads, also weight tickets and times in and out of the mill. Important here to say that scale etiquette is important. Weigh in and weigh out, and don't lose the tickets! Careful through the traffic arms, and careful in and out of the truck. Should I mention that the number of times in and out of the truck for this 12 hour shift can be as high as 70 times a night. I wager this is enough exercise to qualify you for the Olympics!
Before I talk about the trucks and the drivers, let me focus your attention on the mill itself. First the chip mill has its simple function to provide a suitable wood product whether hardwood or pine to be used in the process of making paper pulp. Once produced, this pulp paper product is shipped around the world for use in printing and other basic products. So each day a certain number of loads, or tonnage of wood chips is created through the receiving of logs into the mill from loggers, and then those logs are graded and run through a re-claimer, first removing the bark and then chipping the wood into small pieces that are suited to the Pulp Mills specifications for Pulp grade paper. The foreman of the Chip Mill is interested in one thing only and that is getting the product ready and staged for delivery to the Pulp Mill. Hence, once the mill is in operation at promptly 6 am, mill operators would feed the reclaimer with logs using a high crane and other operators would monitor the process of bark removal, and then the outflow of wood chips via conveyors to the stock piles and truck loading belts where other operators on loaders would tighten up the piles, as well as push and feed product onto the chip trucks which were lined up to be filled and then trolley the product over to the dump stations at the pulp mill wood yard.
These short haul drivers, of which I was one, were on the highway only a short distance and then back into the Big Mill. This leaves me to describe to you a little about the Pulp Mill itself. Employing sometimes several hundred people in the pulp process, including engineers, warehouse-men, equipment and maintenance operators and particularly important, "Millwrights", a type of hands on engineer peculiar to wood plant operations, the Pulp mill is the end all of Industry in South Alabama. Hundreds of trucks come in and out of the mills each month, bringing in chemicals via tanker, and wood chips, by the mega tonnage! The finished products are mostly pulp rolls and sometimes in square bundles, but not limited to these. Certain chemicals including turpentine are also pressed out of the wood chips. The rolls and bundles of Pulp can weigh as much as 3 thousand pounds when they are loaded into over the road transport containers and dry vans, and each truck can carry as many as 20 rolls or 15 bundles, all stamped and coded for interstate and even overseas destinations. The cost of transportation is a big consideration for the marketing of this partially processed paper.
So beginning the night, I would load my trailer with a remote button belt operator, several feet at a time, whereas sensors would activate a red light each time the section was loaded and you slowly move forward until in about seven drops/ stops, the truck has now about 60 thousands pounds of product on board. It is important that you were lined up and stopped correctly so no product would spill. Once loaded you would shift into gear again and drive over to the scale out house and ticket out. The ticket in shows the empty weight and the ticket out shows the loaded weight, and the "payload". The "net load" is what the driver would receive pay on. On a short haul like this it takes 15-20 loads a night to "make it pay". Loaded, sometimes in in the coastal region you might find yourself with little of no visibility due to dense fog, both created by the huge precipitation factor and the emissions from the mill chimneys. So the driver must be very careful to not lumber out onto the highway until he is sure of the traffic. All proper headlight and turn signals must be used as well as preventative driving techniques to watch out for someone else who "isn't" watching.
Driving slowly into the Pulp Mill, there is a guard and gate man at the scales, and though we didn't have to scale on this side, the speed limits and safety rules must be followed implicitly, since other trucks of all sizes are moving in and out at all hours. Then heading back to the dump station that is posted you will know to go slow and watch for trains, loaders, pickups and any obstacle that might be there. A mill can sometimes be an exciting place and remember it can change from one night to the next!. So now I'm at the appropriate dump and backing onto the dump, where once I set the park brakes, get out and unlatch the tailgate, I call out the ticket number to the chip dump operator and he activates the dump with huge hydraulic cylinders which tilt the truck back until the chips (or bark) fall out. The truck/cab is lifted high into the night sky, maybe 80 feet high almost standing straight up on the rear of the trailer. Of course there is a steel barrier that the truck braces against and it is safe, with the driver left on the ground of course!. Once empty you return to the chip mill to begin the second load and so on.
Over a period of time you get to know a few of the employees and there begins a camaraderie and feeling of "belonging", or just being one of the guys. There is a sense of importance implied when they depend on you to get the next load delivered. And of course re-implied if you DON'T! Sometimes they can be very direct in conveying their dependence on your being prompt and following their safety rules.. Personal protective equipment includes hardhat, safety glasses and sometimes steel toe shoes as well as a High-VIs safety vest. Gloves are also necessary to keep your hands protected. Truck drivers need to follow FMCSA rules and safety standards, as well as company safety practices and maybe some of your own personal safe driving techniques.. One of mine is to hit every intersection as squarely as possible and have full visibility of both directions, left and right as well as forward and rear. I would watch carefully as traffic approached to see if they were being aware and slowing down for the yellow caution lights where we turned. Sometimes a car would be oblivious to the danger and I would back off and wait for it to clear out of my space. I say give those in lala-land plenty of room! You are playing with others lives if you text, use a cell phone or generally forget where you are while in a big truck as well. It is not only the city drivers that cause accidents! Truckers who Drive Safely are the first line of defense by following safety rules in ALL driving situations!
IN the wrap-up, making sure you inspect your truck and trailer and write up anything that is needing attention, especially brake equipment and lighting, is important. Also to make sure you turn in your paperwork with all details filled in to suit the payroll gal and the log and safety people. It makes your life easier and you don't have to try to remember "Oh what I was I doing yesterday?" It is all recorded and no questions asked! MAKE SURE you inform the next driver or whoever is taking your place of any changes, or equipment failures, so they can start with "heads up". It is assumed that after you have been on the chip crew a few weeks that you know all the ins and outs, and well you know the razzing if you are caught dropping the ball on the next guy, so be responsible!
JUST recently I changed back on the local chip haul where we make a 75 mile "round robin" chip haul across the border to Florida. It is a basically straight haul and pays enough to keep bread on the table and a new pair of blue jeans once in a while.. Don't get me wrong, but some of these hardy Alabama Truck Drivers work hard and long to bring home a very decent paycheck. For me I enjoy the ride, the interaction with other drivers passing by and the crystal clear reception I get in my truck listening to the CB radio noise. Just joking, but once in a while a tip from a passing driver can get you better situated as you get into the mill and finding the load you need or to drop your load quickly so you can get out and get home.
I haven't said much about it, but the routes to and from mills are set by your companies operations supervisor and you need to follow those routes so that you won't get yourself in a bind or be somewhere that you can't get assistance. Another issue is that fuel costs are high these days and though some trucking fuels subsidies are paid by the government to offset high costs of transport, each run is based on income and cost, and it might affect the pays you receive in the long run if you are wasting fuel in any way.
Daily routines are different depending on what kind of run you are making, but allow yourself of a certain amount of meal costs, and budget yourself so you aren't losing. If I haven't packed a lunch for myself I try to keep my lunch snack costs to a $5 daily minimum.. even that adds up in a 20-24 day monthly driving route. Distance and logs are extremely different than they were a few years ago. for instance My Uncle Jack, who lived in Laredo Tex, told me recently that he hauled a load for a few years From Laredo to Miami in a three day turn around and always had some back-hauls setup so he was being paid coming and going. Today, you would probably take twice that long, due to regulation rest times, allowable driving hours and off duty hours and resets, etc.
At this point, I suggest that a young man or woman who wants to be a driver should enter a certified driving school and gain the skills of modern day driving through training and to optimize his or her career by being a smart and savvy professional. If you don't have that opportunity, then of course you will do just fine by company training and peer help, as well as some diligent self study and practice. I hope this summarizes a bit of the short haul career driver. There are some excellent opportunities in the wood fiber and pulp industries for ambitious drivers.
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