A tanker driver’s blog has put declining safety standards and working conditions firmly at the heart of the dispute between Unite and tanker driver employers. 

Writing for blog Left Foot Forward, Tony, a driver with 18 years’ experience, describes an industry in danger of descending into chaos, with corners being cut on vital training and safety measures. He claims the downward pressure to cut costs is having a dangerous impact on a strategically vital industry. Tony has changed his name to avoidbeing targeted by bosses.

He tells of cut-throat operators driving down pay and cutting corners on training; agency workers being brought in with only two days’ training; and reveals one contract for a major retailer requiring only one day’s training before a tanker can be taken out on the road.

He adds that mistakes are being made by under-trained drivers resulting in contaminated fuel in forecourts; vehicles repaired so often that drivers liken them to `Meccano’ sets; unmanned forecourts where drivers are told to unload dangerous fuel alone; and drivers being told to risk their own safety by approaching the public if they present a danger to the fuel, with reports of assaults on drivers as a result.

In addition, Tony says there are greater numbers of low-cost operators entering the market, pushing standards down still further and the industry further towards ‘chaos’; and complains of drivers on six-month short-term contracts even though the fuel contract may be for three to five years.

Unite union says the issues raised by Tony confirm what it has been saying, which is that the sector needs minimum standards to protect good practice and avert a downwards drift to instability.

Tony writes: “My working day starts at two in the morning. For the next twelve hours, I am in charge of 38,000 litres of fuel. I’ve been doing this job for 18 years, and in that time I can only say things have never been worse. Direct employment has ended, and standards have been stretched all the way down the supply chain.

“The market rules. There are no minimum standards governing what the industry should do. It is ripe for attack by cowboy operators who hire and fire drivers, paying them £8-£9 per hour for a job they know ought to be paid £15 per hour.

“Some colleagues are now on six month contracts. You try getting a mortgage or a rental agreement on that. It puts terrible strain on family life - you can’t plan anything when you don’t know if you can count on a pay cheque.”

Tony also claims training is being compromised. “A good contractor will provide 10-12 days training each year. But industry fragmentation has pushed this down and down. Now we’ve got guys loading trucks not knowing what product is what. ‘Which one is unleaded?’ I’ve been asked by someone about to take £50,000 worth of flammable liquid onto a public highway.

“One low-cost driver had only just been trained the day before. Another company brought in agency staff, with only two days training. Two loads were contaminated, one on a supermarket forecourt. The retailer was not happy - and neither were customers who were putting the wrong fuel in their tanks. How can it be that you can enter the market without a fully trained workforce? It is unsafe and irresponsible – but it is what happens when there is nothing to stop training being cut to the bone.

“Tanker drivers are told to `watch the general public’, to challenge people if they’re smoking, or using a mobile phone, whatever the personal risk. One driver asked a guy to stop smoking near the petrol pumps and was assaulted for his troubles – he had to have two weeks off as a result.”

Diana Holland, Unite assistant general secretary, said: “The message throughout the industry has to be that every link in the chain has a duty to uphold minimum standards. It is irresponsible for the clients – be they oil industry or the retailers – to set the sort of contracts that cause cost-cutting and create instability.

“This is a strategically vital industry and all players have a duty to work with us on urgently needed stability measures to support the decent employers who uphold standards. If not, vicious cost-cutting will bring chaos to this industry.”

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