In a move they say was taken solely with safety in mind, Fonterra has withdrawn drivers who weigh over 150kgs from driving duties.
Fonterra general manager of transport logistics Barry McColl says the move came about after they found some drivers were not wearing their seatbelts.
“Rather than just go out with a directive ‘thou shalt wear thou seatbelt’, we got into the ‘so why is that happening?’ and they said, ‘well, the seatbelt doesn’t fit me.’”
McColl says Fonterra took the view that if the seatbelt didn’t fit, what could be done to solve the problem.
“We started to-ing and fro-ing with the manufacturers, what are the options, is there a bigger seat, a longer seatbelt, what else could you be doing? They then came back and said ‘look, this seat has this weight limit and you need to know that, and no, there aren’t any options around extended seatbelts’.”
McColl says larger aftermarket seats could be fitted but the truck cabs were engineered to take the original seat, so they would have to start thinking about changing the cab engineering so the floor was strong enough to carry the increased weight. He said this was not an option as it would be impossible to certify.
“We also looked into whether we could do seatbelt extenders for those who are at the weight limit but can’t get the seatbelt on, but neither of the manufacturers [Scania and Volvo] endorse the seatbelt extension. They say you can’t use a seatbelt extender with a pre-tensioning seatbelt, and the seats all have a pre-tensioning seatbelt.”
McColl said they went around in circles, but everything came back to the fact the manufacturer doesn't rate the seat above 150kgs.
“The only statement you get is beyond that the seat may not perform to the specification if a person is above that weight. All you really know is there is a potential hazard they may get harmed worse than a person who is within the manufacturer’s rating. It’s a bit like using a crane or a lifting beam; there is a safe lifting load and you know you can’t go beyond that. Well, you can, but there’s a risk, and with today’s world of health and safety, you just don’t put your people in that spot.”
McColl says Fonterra’s first duty of care was to ensure no staff member was put in a more hazardous position than another, and the second was to look at how the issue could be worked around to get the driver back in the truck. He said any drivers nearing the 150kg limit are still driving, but those over the limit have been taken off the road. Fonterra is working with both groups on improving their health.
“I guess we’ve all tried to lose weight at times, and it’s diet and it’s exercise and all sorts of other things, and it doesn't always work for us. We’ve actually got to structure a plan that is going to work for them and they can follow, because it isn’t easy, and it is a really sensitive subject.
“They are good people and we want to keep them at work. The Dairy Workers Union is fully supporting us, and we’ll work out an individual health plan for these guys. Deployment is our first option, get them back into the zone, and ideally then back into the truck.”
McColl says the drivers have been receptive to Fonterra’s efforts to get their weight below 150kgs.
“It’s a delicate issue to approach, but it hasn’t been a oncer conversation, we talked to them initially then we’ve had subsequent conversations about the plans with them, and that conversation is ongoing. Weight loss is difficult, and if that doesn’t work in the long term, then we will be looking at where else they can work and what they can do for us.”
Employment lawyer Max Whitehead publicly stated he felt the policy was unfair and in breach of New Zealand law.
“I’m very annoyed at Max Whitehead,” says McColl. “It was ill informed, he never approached us to talk it through, just made the grand media statement. And it’s wrong. The guys are still employed, we want to keep them employed, we want to find ways for them to work through this, and if driving is their first choice, how do we get them back driving?
“It is purely and simply about looking after your people. You cannot put them in harm’s way. I know there’s a legal thing around that in the Health and Safety Act, but morally, can you put a person in a spot where you know that they are less safe than someone else? In my view you just can’t.”