24 Oct 2019

Union furious NZTA won't prosecute over trucking firms' logbook breach

10:39 am on 24 October 2019

A truck drivers' union is furious a trucking firm has been let off without even a slap on the wrist after it wouldn't let its drivers take breaks.

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File photo. Photo: 123RF

Higgins Concrete in Wellington was investigated by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) earlier this year after a tip-off from one its workers.

The investigation found logbooks had been falsified to look like breaks were being taken but in fact drivers were working up to 12 hours without one.

In emails released to RNZ, the investigator wrote to a colleague "I think we need to act on this pretty quickly as the offending is of a pretty serious and extensive nature".

"Obviously it's a trade that is highly weather dependant, so when things are clear they are being forced to perform non-stop. This appears to be being pushed from a dispatcher level - jobs are queued as the units return back to the plant and can't be swapped around to allow for breaks.

"Drivers are loaded and forced back out the gate again. If they ask for the a break the answer is no."

The NZTA investigation found offending included false recorded start times when the GPS showed the ignition had been turned on up to 40 minutes prior or had already left the yard, falsely recording break locations when the GPS showed the vehicle somewhere else, and working between eight and 12 hours with no recorded break.

"The extent of the problem clearly demonstrates that Higgins Concrete Limited have no systems and processes in place to audit driver logbooks and GPS records, and therefore are not meeting their responsibilities in managing driver fatigue.

"Having had the matter brought up at company Health and Safety meetings by drivers, they are also failing to provide a safe workplace. This on top of what is a very physically demanding role poses a very serious risk of harm or serious injury on our road to both the drivers and the general public."

The investigation also found nearly all the drivers, regardless of what time of day they were starting, were recording their first break for the day at exactly 5.5 hours, in line with the Work Time & Logbooks Rule requirements.

"It was clear that these breaks were likely being entered as 'false entries', an offence under the rule. The logbooks were cross referenced with the abridged GPS reports that had been submitted and anecdotally showed this finding to be correct, with movements in and out of the Wellington, Porirua and Otaki yards appearing to fall around or during recorded breaks."

NZTA recommended a Notice of Improvement (NOI) be issued, but also discussed whether heavier-handed enforcement was warranted.

Two months later, NZTA met with Higgins management and decided the company had been proactive in addressing the issues which negated the need to issue an NOI.

"They have a strong desire to be top operators and I believe this is what has driven their quick response and program of change."

First Union transport and logistics spokesperson Jared Abbott said that was pathetic.

"There's no doubt they got off scott-free for something that's really serious.

"If this is how NZTA treat all operators that they come across this sort of stuff then drivers are screwed."

He said it was rare for drivers to whistleblow, so when they did, NZTA should be cracking down.

There were also questions to be asked over whether NZTA was in a position to investigate a company that it had contracted to undertake work for them, he said.

"I think there probably are a lot of interests tied up in this and whether its explicit or not, clearly there's a conflict there in terms of having an organisation that's relying on the services of another organisation but they're also responsible for investigating them."

NZTA denied they were soft on Higgins, or that they let them off scot-free.

In a statement its senior manager of Regulatory Compliance Brett Aldridge said when enforcement decisions were made the company's entire history was taken into account - and Higgins had a good track record.

"Our response to the complaint resulted in Higgins upgrading their systems, and a follow-up visit has shown that the company has put the processes and systems in place to monitor worktime. We will keep monitoring Higgins' progress with further follow-up visits. This is consistent with our firm and fair approach to regulating the transport system."

A spokesperson from Higgins Wellington said the appropriate person to talk to media about this was unavailable.