Ohio Train Derailment Provides Opportunity for Road Transporters to Reinvest in Their Health & Safety Systems

train yard

There’s an old saying that the average person is statistically more likely to be killed on the drive to the airport than on their actual airline flight. 

This axiom came to mind recently after local media reported a fatal on-road collision involving a tanker truck transporting hazardous materials outside of Tucson, Arizona1. The incident sadly took the life of the driver and resulted in the spill of nitric acid, a chemical component used in fertilizer manufacturing. The event prompted emergency officials to close a major highway in the area, along with the evacuation of residents living within a 1-mile radius of the scene. 

But unless you live in the local area, you likely never even heard of the event. And that fact underlines a truth that many do not realize. 

The Scary Truth of On-Road Hazardous Material Events

Truck-related accidents involving hazardous material releases occur far more frequently – and are far more fatal2 – than hazardous material incidents tied to train derailments or maritime accidents, despite the fact that the latter two receive far more media attention and public scrutiny. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), approx. 1.8 billion tons of hazardous materials were shipped via truck cartage in the United States in 2017, compared to just 90 million tons by train3. And that volume of shipments by road increases the chances of something going wrong. In fact, the BTS reports that there were 23,189 highway accidents involving vehicles carrying hazardous materials in 2022, as compared to just 356 events on railroad lines4. That’s over 65 times more on-road events! And the consequences of these on-road events tend to be far worse as well. 

Data shows that truck-related incidents are three times more likely to result in property damage, and over 15 times more likely to result in fatalities5. By contrast, the rail industry, despite more public and regulatory attention given to derailments, did not register a single fatality in the nearly 400 derailments that occurred last year. 

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be demanding stronger safety regulations, along with better oversight of – and accountability from – the rail industry, especially in light of the horrific train derailment that occurred outside East Palestine, Ohio, in early February. But it does suggest that communities across the United States need to be more acutely aware of the potential danger that exists from the over-the-road movement of hazardous materials. 

In this light, cartage companies involved in the road transport of hazardous materials now have a golden opportunity to learn from the current scrutiny heaved upon the rail industry, and should begin working now to evolve their safety policies and systems to better identify and mitigate risk before it results in another tragic incident. But where should they start? 

In this article, we’ll aim to answer the following questions:

  1. What’s causing these on-road incidents?
  2. What are some opportunities for transportation companies to mitigate incidents?
  3. How does digitization play a role in safety management?

What’s Causing These On-Road Incidents?

We’ve since learned from a NTSB investigation that the derailment outside of East Palestine, Ohio, was most likely caused by a failed wheel bearing on one of the rail cars involved6. Mechanical failures of this kind are in fact a leading known cause of train derailments. But does the same hold true for on-road incidents?

In 2007, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) commissioned the ‘Large Truck Crash Causation Study’ to better understand the factors contributing to on-road incidents involving heavy commercial vehicles. The study concluded that while approx. 87% of on-road incidents could be attributed to ‘driver performance issues’, including failures in attention, recognition and decision, 1 in 10 events were associated with ‘vehicle related matters’, including mechanical issues and defects7

These findings reinforce the importance of regular equipment inspection and maintenance practices to ensure commercial vehicles, especially those carrying highly-hazardous materials, are truly road-worthy. But according to the FMCSA, ‘failing to conduct a pre-trip inspection’, is the fifth most frequently issued road-side citation levied against commercial vehicle drivers8. 

Similarly, data from the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s (CVSA) 2021 International Roadcheck Results study identified the top “out-of-service’ violations – violations that would compel the cartage company to park the vehicle until it can be repaired – were related to mechanical defects involving: 

  • Braking systems & brake adjustment (38.9%) 
  • Tires (18.6%) 
  • Lights (14.1%) 
  • Cargo Securement (12.3%) 

Knowing the brakes will actually stop a vehicle carrying hazardous materials, or that tires will keep the truck from slipping off the road, is rather important, wouldn’t you think? And it raises into question what transportation companies could (and should) be doing to ensure that a) their drivers are adequately trained and in good condition to drive, and b) that their vehicles are sufficiently road-worthy to carry some of the most dangerous materials around. 

An Opportunity to Level-Up Health & Safety via Digitization

Road transportation companies can realize rather immediate benefits to their on-road performance through a digital transformation of their current health & safety programs with software. Let’s quickly look at a few ways. 

Driver Training

It’s clear that with driver performance leading the list of identified causes of on-road incidents, increasing organizational focus on driver training is critically important. Yet many companies are challenged to complete driver training, especially where resources are limited, and where it’s difficult to pull drivers off the road and into a classroom. By migrating to a digital EHS application, organizations can begin to take advantage of administrative tools, automated workflows, and online mobile-enabled learning content to schedule driver training at applicable frequencies, while giving drivers more flexibility to complete that training at a time and pace, and in a location and language, best aligned to their needs and preferences. This leads to better training completion rates, better skills adoption, and eventually better on-road performance. 

Driver Fitness

Ensuring each driver is physically and mentally fit to get behind the wheel is crucial for their safety, and the safety of the communities through which they travel. Occupational health software applications now offer flexible tools to enable organizations to complete fit-for-duty checks on drivers, both at their time of onboarding, and periodically throughout their employment. Mobile apps tied to these platforms also afford firms the possibility to create workflows through which drivers are required to complete daily fitness assessments, in as little as 5-minutes, to confirm they are capable to fulfill their duties, while helping employers identify those at greatest risk – due to fatigue, injuries or illnesses, or other issues – allowing them to adjust driver rosters quickly, while directing those individuals to appropriate health care services based on their needs. 

Additionally, many occupational health software packages come out-of-the-box with advanced features and workflows to assist organizations with randomized and reasonable cause Drug & Alcohol testing, to ensure impaired individuals never get behind the wheel. Enabling businesses with tools to assist them in recognizing when individuals are struggling, and direct those employees to appropriate services and supports, is key to reducing the chances of an on-road event. 

Interested in making your occupational health programs virtual? Read our recent blog, How to Take Your Occupational Health Program Virtualto learn tips and tricks for incorporating telehealth into your workplace.

Equipment Integrity

Organizations need to be certain that their equipment, just like their people, are of sound condition before hitting the road. EHS platforms offer front-line staff simple access via mobile apps to digital checklists and work instructions, helping them not only conduct pre-trip inspections more efficiently, but easily communicate issues up the chain-of-command, ensuring the most urgent repairs are prioritized. System administrators can easily configure inspection checklists to reflect equipment specifications or local regulatory requirements, after which users can access these templates on their preferred device, and in their preferred language, helping to drive better process compliance. 

Software applications also offer tools to allow fleet managers to assist them in monitoring the status of equipment inspections in real-time, alerting them to missed inspections quickly, while also helping them aggregate inspection data and uncover insights into common mechanical problems that can better inform their overall fleet management practices.  

Event Reporting

Even with the best preparation, there’s always a risk of things going wrong when a driver is out on the road. In those circumstances, EHS software offers drivers immediate access to tools to help them collect necessary information about an on-road incident, and easily share that information with internal stakeholders to support investigation workflows, as well as mandatory reporting to external regulators, depending on the nature and severity of the event.

Final Thoughts

With all eyes squarely focused on the recent train derailment in Ohio, it’s easy to get blinders on and lose perspective on where the real risks exist within our workplaces, in our communities, and on our roads. But beyond its terrible consequences, the event in East Palestine can serve as a much needed catalyst for change – and continual improvement – in health & safety performance across the entire transportation sector

But that requires a willingness to confront these issues head-on, and perhaps, invest in better solutions that can make doing the right (and safe thing) easier, faster and better than right now. 


1,2,5 Gorman, M. February 21, 2023. 

3 U.S. BTS. February 24, 2023. 

4 U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. July 31, 2020. 

6 NTSB Preliminary Report RRD23MR005. 

7 FMCSA. July 2007. 

8 Caputo & Van der Walde. March 8, 2022. 

9 CVSA. August 3, 2021.