Houston PRO Doubles Down on Safety … and Wins National Recognition

Keeping employees injury free and productive is a top priority for Texas Outhouse.

Houston PRO Doubles Down on Safety … and Wins National Recognition

Safety manager Jessica Flores waits with Timothy Byrd, an operations supervisor, as he prepares to check trucks entering the yard at Texas Outhouse. He is inspecting to make sure the Safety Vision Observer 4000 HVR high-resolution cameras properly work, and fire extinguishers are charged. (Photos by Jon Shapley)

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Portable sanitation companies and their crews know safety is important. But unfortunately, this critical aspect of employee training is not always top-of-mind — until something goes wrong.

A large urban restroom company, Texas Outhouse/Luxury Event Trailers, took measures to change that, and the lessons they’ve learned can help PROs large and small raise awareness of safety issues. The Houston-based contractor took a bold and uncommon step to hire a safety manager three years ago.

The payoffs? Substantially fewer driving incidents where employees were at fault; decreased driving-insurance costs; and a burgeoning, safety-oriented culture that has improved safety awareness and employee accountability, says Jessica Flores, the safety manager hired in 2018.

“From 2018 to 2019, we had a 75% reduction in the number of driving incidents per 10,000 miles driven that were our (drivers’) fault,” Flores says. “Most of that decrease came from fewer vehicle-to-vehicle accidents and reduced property damage.

“And in the first two years of the program, we cut our overall driving incident rates in half,” she says.

The program’s success earned Flores a third-place Safety Professional of the Year award from J.J. Keller, a nationally known provider of regulatory, safety and compliance solutions to thousands of employers.

Of course, one could make the case that a safety program is a must at Texas Outhouse, which employs about 130 people, owns a 23-acre facility, services between 30,000 and 50,000 restrooms a week and has 70 to 80 service vehicles that rack up roughly 10,000 miles of windshield time per week.

Moreover, about one-third to a half of the daily restroom service stops occur at chemical plants and refineries — places that simply won’t do business with companies that compile poor safety records.

“These days you can’t even bid on a contract without a safety program in place,” says Steve Rockey, the company’s operations general manger.

A BENEFIT TO ANY PRO

But Flores and Rockey note that even small operators who don’t serve customers in riskier settings like petrochemical plants can benefit from a safety program. Whether companies are big or a mom and pop, the same risks exist: driving accidents, injuries incurred while loading/unloading restrooms or getting in or out of trucks, getting splashed with restroom-cleaning chemicals while not wearing personal protective equipment and so forth.

“Generally speaking, everyone faces the same problems,” Rockey says. “We all drive a lot of miles and do a lot of physical labor. There are people in this industry with just a one- or two-acre yard that I imagine can still benefit from a safety focus.”

Flores agrees, noting that a lack of safety protocols can financially endanger companies.

“It only takes one bad accident to put a smaller company under,” she says. “Smaller companies may not need to hire a full-time safety manager, but they can still find dedicated resources that can provide basic safety training.”

Flores says she thinks interest in creating safety-centered cultures is growing. She points out that when Texas Outhouse hosted a Portable Sanitation Association International event last year, a lot of company managers asked her about her job role and responsibilities because they were thinking about creating a similar position in their organizations.

RISING INSURANCE COSTS

Along with concern about maintaining employees’ well-being and health, rising insurance costs prompted Texas Outhouse management to consider a sharper focus on employee safety.

“Insurance rates are going absolutely nuts in our industry — 20% to 30% increases every year for vehicle liability,” Rockey says, noting that insurance premiums are based on a five-year history of accident rates. “We were horrified at the insurance-rate increases, so the ownership (the Carl family) became convinced that we needed a safety manager.

“I came from the oil and chemical industry, where safety is tattooed on your eyelids,” he continues. “So I really wanted to up our game with deeply rooted systems and work on the root causes of accidents and injuries.”

Rockey explains that the big savings from a safety program comes through reduced driving-insurance premiums. Those premiums also are affected by the overall performance of drivers in the portable sanitation industry, over which the company has no control, just as a homeowner’s insurance rates can increase because customers with the same insurance carrier get hit hard by hurricanes thousands of miles away, for example.

But because of the five-year period used to calculate rates, decreasing those costs can take time, akin to turning around an ocean liner, he says.

“Our goal is reducing the number of insurance claims,” Rockey explains. “We presume that as those higher-incident years in our five-year record fall off, our rates will go down. That’s where we’ll save the most money.

“We know that the cost of insuring trucks on the road goes up every year,” he adds. “We’re just trying to get them to go up less.”

CONSISTENCY IS KEY

Initially, not every employee was receptive to the new emphasis on safety. But Flores says most employees were won over by a consistent, structured approach backed by data.

“As soon as we were able to gather enough data and share it with them, they started to realize we were going to keep observing them and holding meetings,” Rockey says. “So over time, we turned the tide and now have them thinking about safety.

“It’s difficult to start up a safety program in any kind of business and I think Jessica has done a really good job,” he adds. “She does training in both Spanish and English and is very entertaining, which keeps guys focused.”

The program’s primary emphasis is safe driving. That’s accomplished via multiple levels of training. One focuses on federal Department of Transportation driver-orientation guidelines, based on federal motor-carrier safety regulations. It’s held offsite and the four-hour course is taught by a certified third-party facilitator, she says.

“We couple that with our own three-hour, in-house safety-orientation course, where we cover everything from fire prevention and protection to emergency response and evacuation to hazard communication and lock-out/tag-out procedures,” Flores explains.

THE NITTY GRITTY

Another part of safety orientation covers the company’s driver-safety policies. It essentially explains the do’s and don’ts of driver safety: What employees need to do if they’re hurt on the job, reporting incidents to supervisors within 24 hours, adherence to local traffic laws, no use of hand-held devices while driving, wearing seatbelts and so forth, she says.

Employees also must take an annual two-hour defensive-driving course. It’s held on-site and includes some behind-the-wheel exercises, the basics of 360-degree vehicle walk-around inspections and using the three-points-of-contact system to enter and leave vehicles.

“We have some drivers that get in and out of their trucks 70 to 80 times a day,” Flores says. “We’ve had a couple cases where a driver steps out of a truck and sprains an ankle because the ground is uneven. So having contact with two hands and one foot is important.

“It sounds like a little thing, but it’s a big thing for us,” she says.

In addition, drivers who service restrooms at refineries or chemical plants must take training through the Houston Area Safety Council. It covers basic safety guidelines provided by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In addition, some companies require drivers to watch a safety-orientation video at their facilities before they’re allowed to service restrooms, she adds.

TECHNOLOGY ASSIST

The company also uses technology — dashcams made by Safety Vision and a GPS/fleet-management system developed by Telogis (a Verizon company) — to bolster its safety efforts. The Safety Vision Observer 4000 HVR high-resolution cameras are driver-forward models, but the company gradually is converting to front- and driver-facing cameras that provide a more comprehensive look at drivers’ behind-the-wheel behaviors, Rockey says.

The company also recently implemented a weekly audit program in which supervisors remove the video cards from randomly selected trucks. Supervisors then review the video footage as well as make sure the trucks are clean and well-maintained, he says. 

The supervisors then fill out a report form and submit it to Rockey, who in turn submits it to the company’s owners. “If we spot questionable behavior, we have a discussion with the driver,” Rockey says. “We’re not trying to be Big Brother and pick on them. We’re just trying to spot things.

“We used to only pull the camera cards when a driver had an incident, but we thought we 

should do it more often,” he continues. “And as a result, the number of questionable behaviors continues to decline.”

SAFE CLEANING, TOO

The company also trains employees how to safely clean restrooms. The company owns tens of thousands of restrooms made by Satellite Industries and hundreds of handwash stations manufactured by Satellite and PolyJohn Enterprises.

The company also owns roughly 50 luxury restroom trailers, mostly from Satellite, plus some specialty trailers from Progressive Trailers (a J.A.R. Capital Group company). It also invested in an on-site waste treatment plant that uses a system manufactured by Wastewater Technologies.

To properly and safely clean all these restrooms and trailers, Texas Outhouse puts restroom route drivers through a safety course at its own on-site training center. The course lasts for one full workday and covers the basics of how to clean restrooms efficiently, safely and rapidly, Rockey says.

“That includes wearing the proper PPE, such as gloves and safety glasses so they don’t get waste on their skin or in their eyes,” he explains. “We also warn them about things that often get left in restrooms, such as syringes. If you can imagine it, people have thrown it into a toilet. There also are the physical risks related to pulling hoses and working with chemicals.”

ROOKIE SUPERVISION

After the first day of safety training, new employees ride with an experienced driver for a few weeks before they can drive routes solo, Rockey says.

Drivers also are trained to use a tablet computer to take photos of restrooms after they’re cleaned; this alleviates potential disputes if customer don’t think restrooms were serviced, he says.

“The tablets tie into our Tower enterprise resource planning software (from AMCS Group), made for the portable-sanitation industry,” Rockey says. “The drivers upload photos into the Tower system along with the restroom’s GPS coordinates. That way if a customer calls and says we didn’t clean their restrooms today, we can look and tell when the driver was there and where the restroom was when he cleaned it.”

In addition, Texas Outhouse also owns between 70 and 80 service vehicles, mostly Hino and some Ford chassis outfitted by Satellite and Lely Tank & Waste Solutions (now owned by American Tank), with tanks sizes ranging from 900 gallons waste/150 gallons freshwater to 1,500 gallons waste/300 gallons freshwater. The manufacturers of vacuum pumps on the trucks include Masport and National Vacuum Equipment.

The company also owns vacuum tanker trailers made by Troxell Trailer.

MONTHLY MEETINGS

To further stress the importance of safety for workers, the company holds monthly 30-minute meeting for various groups of employees, from office staff and route drivers to wastewater-treatment plant operators and shop workers (mechanics, welders, painters, etc.), Flores says.

“For office staff, we might talk about ergonomics and for drivers 

we cover various safety topics and trends, as well as talk about any 

incidents that have occurred since the last meeting,” she says.

One key to a successful safety program is keeping things fresh, Rockey and Flores agree. “It’s easy for people to become numb to it all after a while,” he says.

To avoid that, Flores periodically changes things up. 

“Everyone absorbs information differently, so you have to try different things to get their attention,” she says. “Physically showing them something in a different way helps to keep a topic fresh.”

“Showing video clips of other drivers’ accidents is really effective,” Rockey adds. “Drivers are very visual learners, so videos like that provoke a lot of good discussions.”

Overall, Flores believes the program has built a safety-oriented culture.

“It’s created a dramatic paradigm shift in how employees think about safety,” she says. “Typically employees clock in and clock out and don’t really keep safety in mind.

“But now, employees come up to us and ask what we think about various situations,” she continues. “They’re owning up to things and are so much more transparent about and engaged in safety in ways they weren’t before. It’s been very gratifying to see this change.”  



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