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April 15, 2016 4:07 PM, EDT

Staying Safe While Inflating Truck Tires

Proper Practices, Equipment Reduce Workplace Hazards
Tire Industry Association

This story appears in the April 11 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

Safety guidelines for inflating truck tires have been in place for decades, but fleets, service providers and tire makers say those best practices are no less important today for keeping technicians and drivers out of harm’s way.

An expanding truck tire has the potential to explode with tremendous force, which can place technicians at risk of injury — or death — and even an inflated tire can present the same danger if improperly mounted.

U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations set forth a series of procedures and safeguards for safely mounting and inflating tires. One key is for workers to stay out of the tire’s potential trajectory zone in case of an explosion, both while filling the tire with air and precaution while inspecting the wheel afterward.

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“Inflation is one of several items on the top of our minds every day,” said Dan Jensen, director of tire sales and service for Love’s Travel Stops, which operates truck stops and maintenance locations in 40 states. “Tire inflation, besides being the biggest cause of tire failures, is also one of the most dangerous parts of the job.”

That is why employers are responsible for providing proper training and equipment.

A technician should inflate a tire while it is within a restraining cage and use a sufficiently lengthy air hose with a clip-on chuck to keep a safe distance from the tire as it expands on the rim, according to OSHA’s tire service standard for trucks, tractors and trailers, which dates to 1980.

Trucking companies and maintenance service providers have taken steps to ensure that their employees are aware of the inherent hazards of tire work and how to avoid them.

In addition to using the proper equipment, technicians must thoroughly inspect tires and wheel components for defects to ensure safety as they remount and inflate tires.

Jensen said the most common tire degradations are zipper ruptures — circumferential ruptures in the mid-sidewall of a steel-belted radial truck tire — which are unpredictable and can occur with no warning.

Drivers also play a key role in checking and maintaining proper tire inflation, so fleets have established safety procedures for them as well.

Randy Obermeyer, terminal manager at Batesville Logistics in Indiana, said his company requires its drivers to follow a set protocol for inspecting each tire pre- and post-trip, including checking and calibrating the pressure gauges themselves.

The company has an eight-step procedure for proper inflation by drivers, including cautionary statements about staying out of the wheel’s trajectory zone and taking the time to listen and watch for signs of trouble. A chart identifies target tire inflation for each wheel position.

Obermeyer said “every piece of equipment that comes into the shop or crosses the fuel island has the tire pressures checked before getting parked.”

Less-than-truckload carrier Saia Inc. stresses the importance of tire inspection and proper inflation to its drivers, both for safety and fuel economy, said Cris Burgum, vice president for maintenance and properties.

He said his company also asks its drivers to conduct a tire check at every pre- and post-trip inspection, as well as midway through the trip at his or her rest periods.

Saia, based in Johns Creek, Georgia, ranks No. 26 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

Tom Bray, lead editor for transport management at J.J. Keller & Associates Inc., said a majority of drivers have some knowledge of the hazards associated with tire inflation, but warned that awareness is incomplete, and sometimes based on word of mouth among drivers.

Love’s Jensen said experienced drivers generally are aware of the potential dangers of inflating tires.

“[They] understand that bad things can happen if they don’t handle it properly,” he said, but added that it never hurts to remind them.

Experts say it can be safe for a driver to add air to a tire mounted on the vehicle, but there are limits.

Bob Reddy, program manager for Michelin’s Commercial Service Network franchise, said the tire’s pounds-per-square-inch reading should be within 20% of the recommended inflation pressure for that vehicle, which would be at least 80 psi for a 100 psi tire. If the tire is underinflated by more than 20%, it is considered flat and should be removed and inspected.

Steve Wilton, vice president of operations for Goodyear Commercial Tire & Service Centers, warned that tires that register below the 80% inflation threshold could have been run underinflated or not serviced properly.

If the tire is below 80% of its proper pressure, technicians should completely deflate the tire by removing the valve core before removing the tire and wheel assembly from the axle. Then they should remove, inspect and match all tire and wheel parts before re-inflating the tire inside an approved restraining device, he said.

Erin Hill, a dispatcher for Thomas Trucking Inc. in Cincinnati, said the fleet instructs its drivers to air up their tires when they are underinflated but still above 80 psi for a 100 psi tire. If the pressure has dropped below 80 psi, however, the tire is pulled for service.

Meanwhile, tire companies and trade organizations continue working to establish best practices and disseminate that information.

One such organization, the Rubber Manufacturers’ Association, is preparing to send updated information on tire service and repair issues to 50,000 truck tire service locations in the coming year, said Dan Zielinski, senior vice president of public affairs at RMA. The updated material will cover a wide variety of tire-service topics, including demounting and mounting, repairs, zipper rupture warnings and maintenance. Like OSHA’s guidelines, RMA’s material contains recommendations about using a cage and hose with a chuck attachment for inflating truck tires.

Individual companies also spread knowledge about safe inflation procedures through training programs.

Michelin, for example, runs a safety course at its Greenville, South Carolina, facility. The tire maker requires tire safety certification for employees within its network and works with the Tire Industry Association to expand industrywide safety and training, Reddy said.