The men and women who operate refuse trucks in the narrow streets of our urban centers, through the sprawling suburban neighborhoods, and along the two-lane country roads are a hardy lot. Each and every day they climb into the cabs of equipment that range from state-of-the-art vehicles equipped with enough computer equipment to run an aircraft to ancient hand-me-downs from the auction block. They perform their duties on spring-fever mornings and crackling-cold afternoons. They accept equipment failures, little kids’ excited waves, traffic stress, and the myriad major and minor frustrations to ensure that trash, recyclables, and greenwaste are collected from America’s curbs.
For these thousands of men and women, the refuse-truck cab is their office for eight to 10 hours each working day. They want to start out in the morning with a truck that is going to allow them to complete their assigned mission in a safe, efficient, and comfortable manner. What they don’t want is a truck that has to be cajoled to be productive, is prone to on-route failures, or is uncomfortable to drive. Provide them with good equipment and they’ll be happy. Give them equipment that is a constant source of frustration and you can bet that their angst will become yours.
Designing a refuse truck requires balancing many considerations that affect the equipment operator. These considerations include defining the truck’s operating environment, productivity requirements, and expected life cycle. Defining the operating environment starts with the collection methodology—automated, semiautomated, or manual. This can determine whether the truck is a one-person operation or whether accommodations to carry additional personnel must be made. The collection methodology also defines whether the truck should be left-hand, right-hand, or dual drive. Further consideration must be given to whether the operator is going to need to climb in and out of the truck at every stop or only occasionally. Repeatedly climbing in and out of the cab might dictate the requirement for a low-entry cab.
In Oak Harbor, WA, the city regularly specifies low cab-forward trucks. “It’s easier on the legs to get in and out,” states Daniel Kimball, solid waste manager. “It puts a lot of strain on your knees and your back jumping in and out of the cab all day.”
Productivity needs and operating environment may dictate the capacity, wheelbase, and placement of the cab on the truck. If the truck is going to be operating in the narrow streets of a major urban center or tight residential developments, a shorter wheelbase might be needed for the truck to negotiate these areas. For example, the City of Oak Harbor specifies the cab-forward design on its trucks to improve the turning radius of the vehicles in residential cul-de-sacs. This was actually on the suggestion of the drivers. “They were concerned about turning radius,” explains Kimball. “The trucks now turn really sharp, and the drivers are all pretty happy about what they have. You can actually pick up an area, and you don’t have to do five-point turnarounds.” Shorter wheelbases or use of a single axle versus a tandem axle will also affect the payload capacity of the truck and, thus, the number of stops the truck might make on a route. Operation in an urban environment might also require that operator visibility around the truck be enhanced through the addition of mirrors and video cameras.
Finally, defining what materials the truck will be collecting—whether it’s strictly MSW, commingled recyclables, greenwastes, or some dual collection strategy—will further define the configuration and design of the collection truck. Not all materials can be collected efficiently or effectively with the same type of truck, especially if the collection approach is manual and might require lifting of bagged materials. Some cities have experienced instances of premature floor and packer-blade wear because of the abrasive nature of glass in recycling programs and dirt in greenwaste. Understanding what effect these materials will have on the life span of the collection vehicle will ultimately affect the reliability of the vehicle and the productivity of your operators. If your truck is down for major rebuild and your driver has to take the beat-up spare truck for a long period of time, that driver’s satisfaction level is going to deteriorate.
Designing for the Driver
Refuse operators are asked to safely and efficiently operate their vehicles through a variety of conditions and extremes. While it seems like a simple process to hand a driver a route map and tell him or her to pick up all the stops listed, in reality we are asking these men and women to slip behind the wheel of a behemoth that’s capable of doing great damage if it gets out of control. On some of the more state-of-the-art trucks, the variety and complexity of equipment require a great degree of intelligence and common sense.
The driver begins his day by receiving his assigned routes and any supporting paperwork in the office before walking out to the line and picking up his assigned truck. The first step is to conduct a pretrip inspection of the safety and operating features of the truck. This inspection involves a walk-around of the truck to check if all headlights, signal lights, and clearance lights are in place and operating. Tires are examined for any wear or failures, and wheels are checked for loose or missing lugs. During these inspections, the driver is simultaneously checking to see if there are any loose appliances along the undercarriage or telltale oil, hydraulic fluid, or water stains that might imply leaks or hose failures. The body is examined for any wear, damage, or distortion that might indicate a misaligned cylinder or packer blade. Depending on the policies of the individual collection operation, the driver might also be lubricating various wear-points on automated arms or cylinder connections.
Once the passive inspection has been completed, the driver will start the truck and allow the brake system to build up air pressure. If the truck has an automated arm, the arm will be run through several cycles to determine if there are any problems with its operation. The packing system will also be activated, and depending if the truck is empty, the driver may even open the tailgate and check the interior of the body for any problems. Finally, the driver will conduct a test of the brakes and engine system to ensure everything is as it should be.
The design of the refuse truck should be such that conducting these inspections does not require the driver to be a former acrobat or contortionist. If an inspection point is inaccessible or inconvenient to reach, the likelihood is that it won’t be inspected no matter what discipline is threatened. If the item does fail during the course of the day, a driver could claim that they checked it “just this morning” and “everything looked fine.”
Safety and Comfort in the Cab>
Once in the cab, drivers are looking for an operating environment that allows them to perform their duties safely and effectively. Primarily, they want to be comfortable while they work. Since the drivers will be in their vehicles for extended periods, adequate seats are a necessity. Many drivers will tolerate little nuisances, but inadequate or uncomfortable seats are not among those things.
“I find these new seats they’re making now seem to add to that comfort,” states Albert Garcia, a residential refuse collector with the City of Oxnard, CA. “Seats with shocks that work usually help,” he adds. Driver seats must be adjustable and well cushioned and supply adequate support for the lower back. In climates with extreme winter temperatures, heated seats may be an appropriate option.
One area that’s very important to drivers is the heating and air-conditioning systems. These need to be adequately sized to accommodate the temperature extremes in which the vehicle will be operating. Having an HVAC system that doesn’t provide adequate service is frustrating, remarks Judy Fales, an equipment operator with the City of Midland, MI. “There was air conditioning in the trucks, but it didn’t work really well. It would have been nice to have a little bit more. The same thing happened in the winter. The heat didn’t work very well, and you had one door open and were jumping in and out all the time.”
Midland just recently converted their operation to a front-loading split body, with 70% of the capacity for residential refuse and 30% for yardwaste. “We place either the refuse or the yardwaste into the appropriate bin in the front of the truck,” explains Marty McGuire, director of public services. “We can do this manually or with an automated tipper that’s on the truck. We give our customers the option of either a bin for semiautomated collection or placing refuse in regular cans or plastic bags and yardwaste in kraft paper bags. By doing it the way we do it, we give our customers a choice of how they prepare their refuse. It has allowed us to do the entire city in five routes rather than having the additional two trucks follow for yardwaste.”
McGuire includes his drivers in the development of the collection trucks. “When it was time to actually look at trucks, we spent a good deal of time with the drivers talking about what we wanted to accomplish in terms of two-stream collection,” he recalls. “Once that was established, they got very involved in selecting the actual truck. When we thought we had the truck we wanted, we took one of our drivers, one of our lead mechanics, a refuse supervisor, and myself and went to Chicago to observe one of these vehicles in operation. We let our driver drive the vehicle and make some suggestions. Some of his suggestions were implemented on our new trucks.”
Visibility from the cab of the truck is also critical to the driver’s level of comfort. If a driver feels that he’s not able to safely see his surroundings, his stress level while operating the truck will increase. One of the ways to improve driver visibility is through the proper placement of mirrors. “Mirrors play an important part,” states Garcia. “Sometimes they put the mirrors where the [door] post is; sometimes that could be a distraction, especially when you’re trying to negotiate a lane change. You’ve really got to move around to search.” In one-person trucks, remote-control mirrors are an added feature that allows the driver to adjust the rear-view mirrors from the cab seat as opposed to climbing in and out of the cab.
Most often, drivers of recycling or garbage collection vehicles do double duty as collectors, and standup right-hand and dual-drive vehicles make their work day safer and more productive. According to Wade Roskam, general manager of Fontaine Modification Company in Springfield, OH, the typical route requires operators to make between 300 and 600 stops in a day. “With a standard vehicle they have to open the door, grab the handles, walk two steps down into traffic on the left-hand side, walk around the vehicle, and then pick up the recyclables or garbage. So many workers’ comp accidents are the result of climbing in and out of a vehicle.” They modify the equipment with a driving station (or stations in the case of dual standup) that allows the operator a one-step exit and entry. “We also provide an interlock system between the transmission and the braking system,” Roskam points out, “so the driver just has to hit the parking brake and the truck automatically reverts to neutral with the parking brake engaged. When he releases the brake, it reverts back to the last gear selected. It removes the wear and tear from all those transmission shifts, and the driver is less likely to put the vehicle into the wrong gear.”
On the dual standup configurations, a left/right driver control mechanism stops the accelerator pedal from operating on the right-hand side when it’s flipped to the left control, and vice versa. “It’s an important safety feature. Only one operator can run the vehicle at any one time,” says Roskam.
Reliability Equals Driver Satisfaction
For a large majority of drivers, there is an inherent pride in the equipment they operate. The more ownership a driver has in a vehicle, the more likely he or she will take care of the truck. For many operations, they assign the same truck to the same driver each day to further enhance that equipment ownership. One technique that the City of Shreveport, LA, uses to build that ownership is to paint the driver’s first name on the door of the truck. “We found from experience that the guys will take more pride in that truck with their name on that door,” points out Fred Williams, solid waste superintendent. “It works very well and is another reason why the guys drive the same truck every day. It’s just a little something that gives them pride about what they’re doing and the fact that ‘Hey, this is my truck and I’m going to take care of it.'”
Assigning the same vehicle to the same driver creates an expectation that the truck will be available whenever the driver is on shift. Therefore, being able to quickly return a truck into service becomes an important feature for the drivers. While the ability to diagnose a problem quickly is important to the mechanics, it is important to the drivers as well. “They’ve got it set up now so that if anything goes wrong with it, they can put it on the machine and it’ll tell you what’s wrong,” relates Rufus Thomas, an operator/collector with the City of Shreveport. “You have your truck the same day or the next day. It won’t be down for a week or two like the old trucks were.”
Shreveport recently converted over to semiautomated, once-per-week collection service from manual, twice-a-week collection that included both curbside and back-door collections. Prior to converting, the city ran a pilot program involving 3,500 homes to test the use of 96-gal. carts and once-per-week collection. “At the end of the pilot program, we did a survey to see exactly how [the residents] felt about it,” says Williams. “About 85 to 87 percent really liked the idea.” Using a fleet of 55 trucks, the city provides collection services to 65,000 households in Shreveport and another 15,000 households in adjacent Bossier City. Each of the rearloader trucks is equipped with two cart flippers to allow both the driver and the second collector to empty carts, thus increasing productivity.
Williams receives input every day from his drivers and provides that input to the fleet-services department, which ultimately draws up the specifications for new trucks. “Through the years, we’ve heard from the drivers and jotted down notes. The drivers talk more to the mechanics than to us. They’ll tell us what problems they’re having, but most of the time their conversation is directly with the fleet-services people. When we get ready to do specifications, based on what information the fleet-services people have from the drivers and their knowledge of what’s going on in the industry, they try to put together a set of specs. We will go over them together to see if it’s going to provide everything we’re looking for.”
Williams has found that his drivers are happier with the new system. “The guys tell me that they’re not as tired in the evenings as they used to be because of the semiautomated system,” he states. “There’s a lot less lifting involved, which we found out also prevents a lot of accidents. When the guys are tired, they’re more prone to accidents and injuries. We don’t see as much of that.”
It’s an Adventure
For the vast majority of refuse operators, there is a great deal of satisfaction derived from the performance of their jobs, and the equipment that is provided to them contributes to that satisfaction. “I enjoy my coworkers and some of the citizens—they’re nice,” observes Thomas, whose career with Shreveport covers 14 years. He recalls one resident who threw out an old purse with money in it. “She had to follow us through the whole route until we had to take the truck to the landfill and dump it separately so she could dig through it. She found the money.”
Albert Garcia’s career with the City of Oxnard is quickly approaching 10 years. He advises the manufacturers to be conscious of the need for accessibility for cleaning out behind the packer blades. “They really need to have a way for the driver to get the packer clean without actually having to go inside,” he says. “The way they make the packers now, they’re much smaller. If they made it where you could clean it from the outside, that would probably be a lot better.”
Garcia sees his role as benefiting the safety of the public. “If I do a good job, the people will notice. A lot of times, just the smile on the residents’ faces really counts for a lot.” His most unusual career experience was a dog attacking the truck. “The dog saw the truck, got mad at it, and the first thing it did was attack me. I got a stick and just kept putting it in his mouth while I jumped to the other side of the truck.”
For Judy Fales, it was the reaction of the public to see a female refuse collector. “When my kids told their teachers what I did, they didn’t believe them,” she recalls. “It was challenging, and it took me a few months to get so I could get my runs done on time. I had to build up and get into shape, but it was very rewarding when I knew I could do the job.” Fales recognizes that anyone with determination and good equipment can do this job. “It helps when you have the trucks in working order. You get to know your truck and know all the little tricks to it, because they all have their own little tricks.”
Saving Drivers With Tarping Systems
Transfer trailer and rolloff operators face similar working conditions as their collection comrades but also face operational challenges not experienced by the route drivers. While a transfer driver doesn’t experience the constant challenge of collecting refuse in a residential or commercial setting with its multiple stops, they face the challenge of operating a larger truck on a long-distance cycle in a timely manner. Getting the maximum number of loads per work shift can be a challenge affected by road conditions, traffic patterns, and the distance between the customer or transfer station and the final disposal site.
Most states require that all loads be covered before moving over streets or highways in order to prevent litter and possible hazards to other drivers. This requirement means that all drivers must take the time and effort to cover and secure their loads. There are three methods for accomplishing this.
The first approach involves the driver manually unfolding and positioning a tarp over the load. The driver must physically climb up onto the trailer and work the tarp across the entire trailer, often climbing across the load or along the edge of the trailer. Manual tarping is inherently dangerous. The driver can slip and fall off the trailer, especially during inclement weather when the edges are wet or icy. Another danger is posed when the driver crosses from side to side over what seems to be a solid load. Many drivers have been injured when a load gives way, causing injuries ranging from simple abrasions to more serious leg, arm, neck, and back injuries. There is always the danger of being punctured or impaled as well.
The second method involves using a semimanual tarping system. This combines an automated storage and feed system for the tarp mounted on a fixed- or variable-height tower and requires the driver to physically pull the tarp back over the trailer or rolloff box from the ground. Several companies offer semiautomated systems. One such system, the High Tower, is offered by Donovan Enterprises of Stuart, FL. Scot Fuhrman, division manager for waste products, describes the operation of the system: “The driver raises the tarp, in effect, 12 feet above the frame so it’s high enough to be above the container and its contents. He walks back behind the container to a point where he can see the rear of the truck and both sides. He pulls the tarp out over the load, ties it off, and lowers the tarp system back down, and that covers the container. Everything is within his view.”
The third is a fully automated system. This involves a set of arms located on either side of the container that physically pulls the tarp from the storage housing and extends it the length of the container or that’s fitted so the covers automatically fold up and over the transfer trailer. These systems are offered by a variety of manufacturers and permit the driver to remain on the ground while operating the system through power controls. The systems can be hydraulic, electric, or a combination of both and can reduce the wear-and-tear on drivers, says Fuhrman. “One driver was 60 years old. He couldn’t climb up and do manual tarping or some of the other methods that were done before. He said he would come to work if they gave him the truck with the automated system because he could do that. Another driver said when he was hand-tarping, he was hauling three loads a day. Now he’s hauling four to five loads, plus he’s getting home in time for his family.”
Semi- or fully automated tarping systems can increase productivity while reducing workers’ compensation claims. Both add to your bottom line. Earthwise Mulch in Stuart, FL, a processor of greenwastes and mulch products, has installed automated tarping systems on its bulk trailers used to move greenwastes and finished products. “This tarping system will cut your downtime to where you really don’t have any,” says Steve Stanley, treasurer for the company. “I can pull into a job site, hit a button, open up my tarp, load my truck, hit another button, close the tarp, and I’m out of there. I don’t have to be waiting around, jumping up on top of the load, pulling out the tarp, and strapping it down. It saves a good 15 minutes each trip. We work in a transfer station where we’re loading up our trucks and basically shipping them about 10 miles down the road. Instead of a driver doing five loads a day, he can get eight loads a day.”