Transport risk assessment for road tanker operators
Road transport risk assessment is usually considered part of safety management for tanker (or “tank truck“) operators, but it can also help manage reputational risks.
Road tankers provide an essential link in the supply chain for liquid fuels, chemicals and foodstuffs. They also put the brands of manufacturers and distributors in a very visible place on the public highway. This free advertising is welcome in general, but could be highly damaging to the company’s reputation if the vehicle is unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident. The tanker cargo may have the potential to cause harm to people, to property or to the environment. The logo displayed proudly on the side of the tanker is equally eye-catching amid news reports of a catastrophic pile-up, fire or dangerous goods (DG) spill.
How can managers be sure that they are doing what is necessary to protect the brand?
One solution is to use discrete, logo-free tankers, owned by contractors with a low public profile. It is easy to understand why a cautious small company might do this, but large companies cannot hide so easily. Plain-painted tankers leaving a well-known site might give the impression that the company expected trouble, or had something to hide.
The opposite solution might be to emblazon the company name, welcome the free publicity, and take confidence from the fact that road accidents involving DG cargoes are very unusual. Road tankers and their operators comply with international standards. So all that is needed is to follow the rules, isn’t it?
Again, this may work well for a small company, especially in countries with good driving and safety management standards. However, the laws of probability work against large companies. The bigger the fleet, the more likely an accident is to occur. And in some countries, road accidents are much too common to ignore.
In this age of social media, tanker operators cannot wait for a viral film clip to reveal dangerous driving. Lorries are now labelled with hotline numbers inviting the public to comment. This provides a proactive source of information, and the feedback can be a powerful tool for improving tanker driver behaviour. It also suggests that risk management activity is taking place. Hence it may be a subtle form of reputational risk management.
Yet public opinion is a crude indicator of risk, and such engagement activity may be necessary but is not sufficient for good risk management. There are numerous ideas of this type that might be suggested to improve safety standards and protect the company’s reputation. Some might be more expensive; others might be a waste of time. How can a tanker operator choose between them and prioritise its investment of time and money in search of continuous improvement?
Any organisation that is exposed to risks of unplanned events needs to manage those risks. Risk management involves identifying possible events, analysing the risks, evaluating possible management options, implementing them in practice and monitoring their effects.
In the case of road transport, the obvious risk is that an accident may occur, spilling the vehicle’s cargo. This would bring the business into contact with the public in a very visible and unwanted way. The road transport industry rightly puts a lot of effort into preventing such events, and mitigating them if they do occur. Regulations ensure a good basic level of safety. In Western countries, risk assessment can be used to make decisions about additional safety measures, possibly going beyond legal requirements. In developing countries, risk assessment can guide operators in a cost-efficient way towards better safety performance.
Even without an accident, tanker drivers are in effect public ambassadors for their company. They give an impression of its safety culture through their careful or perhaps careless driving. While good on-road behaviour may not greatly enhance a company’s reputation, dangerous driving can certainly damage it. Transport operations therefore create reputational risks.
What measures should a tanker operator adopt to protect its reputation? In my opinion, the necessary measures are much like those needed to protect life, property and the environment. Reputation is at root an aspect of the company’s business – its profitability or value – albeit one that is particularly difficult to quantify. Although there are cases where reputation is damaged without any other harm being done, it would be very unwise to attempt to manage reputational risks in isolation without any reference to health, safety or environmental protection.
Transport risk assessment
Road transport companies therefore need a good risk management process, and underlying this should be a systematic risk assessment of the transport operation.
Risk assessment can be quantified, but tanker operators tend to prefer the subjective version, based on the experience of key individuals. This approach needs teamwork between people who know the transport operation and people who understand how to manage risks. International operators often use audits and checklists. I have also seen companies making very effective use of interviews and workshops. When the process works well, it gives the transport operator a clear insight into the risks that it is taking as part of its business, and the defences it has in place against accidents. It provides a shared language to explain why certain measures are needed, and why others are more distant priorities.
Transport risk assessment also provides a way of managing one of the key reputational risks for a road tanker operator. It provides a middle path between the fearful “no-logo” and the over-confident “no worries” approaches. It cannot guarantee that no accidents will occur, but prudently helps protect the company’s reputation.