Friday, November 7, 2008

Gambling on the Future

(from the November Editor's Note in AsphaltPro Magazine)

Something John Ball told me for the cost-cutting article in this month's issue got me to thinking. He suggested that owners incorporate the bonuses they anticipate achieving on a project into the project's bid. Well, yes, I've known folks to do this. If you have faith that your crew can exceed the density spec or can finish ahead of schedule garnering a smoothness or early completion bonus, why not factor that into the estimate to make sure your bid is lower than the bid from the folks down the road?

It's a gamble.

But there are aspects of this industry that aren't a gamble. When you stock up on liquid asphalt cement (AC) in the winter, you know you'll use that grade in that quantity while prices are rising in the marketplace during the regular construction season. Now, given this past year's prices, that would have been a good risk to take in December 2007.

Another good risk this year is equipment purchases. Manufacturers are willing to wheel and deal, and the economic stimulus package that went into effect back in the winter still stands—to the tune of a $200,000 deduction for some businesses.

Something I view as a bad gamble is reducing personnel. Given the safety concerns and the complexity of most jobs in quarries, at the hot mix asphalt (HMA) plant and at the paving site, firing a trained employee to save the cost of his or her salary—plus benefits—is short-sighted. You might think another employee—or two—can put on an additional hat and take on that now-missing person's responsibilities, but there's no replacing his or her experience.

Often, a veteran employee with many years of experience and knowledge is the one with the higher salary; he's the one targeted to reduce costs. How negligent is an owner who releases that employee and expects a less-skilled worker to take over at his station the next day? Does anyone think a project's quality control will improve with this business practice in place?

Eventually, the construction industry's bell curve will swing back up and you'll need to hire new workers. Who's going to show them the specific nuances of the machines and operations in your business if the folks with the inside knowledge have been released to seek employment with your competitors? By releasing skilled workers now, you not only cripple current operations, but also sabotage future projects.

How about instigating new, good business practices with less risk? Industry experts weighed in with some excellent ideas for saving money/cutting costs no matter what the size of your business and we assembled them in one massive article starting on page 10. Now, there are a few ideas that take capital upfront. Those you can put in the "gamble" category if you're living close to the edge in this turbulent economic climate, but other business practices that don't take a substantial initial investment start saving you money right away. Anything from reducing fuel costs, utility bills and equipment loss to increasing efficiency of individual pieces of equipment and office systems can help cushion the increased costs of materials these days.

If you know your costs are lowering, your systems are increasing in efficiency and your skilled employees are on board and working hard for you, then the numbers you put on the next bid aren't quite as large a gamble as they were before. You can have more faith in your operation and can bid with more confidence, less risk.

Stay safe,
Sandy Lender

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Alternative Fuels Lead to Alternative Funding

(from the October Editor's Note of AsphaltPro Magazine)

During my first sojourn into the asphalt industry, I worked for an entrepreneur named Bill Neeley. Bill would often come flying into my office, pull a chair up close to my desk, and say in a half-whisper, half-yawp, "Lady, I've got an idea!" Somehow, that half-whisper filled the room with electricity. No matter what the idea, something exciting was about to happen. Or…maybe something that would have to be handled delicately to bring Bill back down to reality. It depended on the idea, you know. One day Bill introduced me to a book called Only the Paranoid Survive by Andrew S. Grove.

That sounded about my speed.

The principle I came away with from the book was this: pay attention to what could be coming down the pike. Now, I want to put a different spin on it. I like to think of it as only the prepared survive. You never know when a great idea is going to affect your industry or your company or your little neck of the woods. In the case of the transportation industry, right now, these next few years, this election season, there's a lot to pay attention to. Bill's little book is stirring in the back of my mind as we watch the various factors that impact highway transportation funding.

Think about the marketplace. Drivers are sick of paying high prices at the gas pump, so they're driving less. Carpooling is back in vogue and family vacations lean closer to home. The less consumers put in their gas tanks, the less they put in the highway funding coffers.

Consider also the alternative fuels that keep new engines running cleanly and efficiently. With less taxable parts going in, there's less funding coming out.

Where do we make up the difference to keep highways and byways safe for the traveling public? Where do we make up the difference to keep American infrastructure strong and the workers building that infrastructure a part of the American economy? And when was the last time we defined "infrastructure" for the taxpayers who are casting their votes next month? One person's idea of infrastructure can encapsulate museums and schools. Let's get our terminology straight with some taxpayer and legislator education while we get our alternative funding ideas set as well. Already, contractors and DOT officials are coming together in places like Colorado and out east where forward thinkers are considering the ramifications of losing highway funding to the alternative fuels revolution. This strategic planning needs to take hold at our state and national meetings this winter. Now is a great time to take advantage of downtime and plan ahead for what's coming down the pike.

My friend Bill passed away a few months ago, and it broke my heart to hear of it. I'd like to think that if he's paying attention now, he'd be pleased to see this industry he was so involved in planning on surviving. I wouldn't say we're being paranoid, but being prepared. And that's survival of the fit.

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender

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Industry Controls Dust, Water

(from the August/September Editor's Note of AsphaltPro Magazine)

Welcome to the issue dedicated to aggregate concerns. Of course we have plenty of hot mix discussions in this edition of AsphaltPro, but, if you readers don't mind, I feel the need to ramble a bit about rocks and crushing and how nicely our industry is watching out for dust. (I'll call your attention to our Here's How it Works department featuring the DustPro system on page 37 as just one example, and I'll dive into the topic here in a minute.) First, I have to tell you why the aggregate issue is so intriguing to me.

Maybe I was just a strange girl, but I thought it was pretty neat when my dad gave me a geode 30 someodd years ago. The outside of the rock was just your average ol' rocky brown and gray stuff you see in any ol' pile, but when I turned it over—oh, wow! It was purple inside. And crystal-like. And there were layers of color and sharpness angled down through a hollowed crevice in the center. That, my friends, was cool.

During my childhood, I wanted to hear stories of Grandpa working in the coal mines and how they got the material up out of the ground. When I had science electives in college, this English major took geology. When I sat down to write a fantasy trilogy, I gave my main character the all-important-to-the-plot birthmark of an amethyst on her cheekbone, high up near the corner of her right eye. (And, yes, it's under contract; the second book is due out this fall.)

All of that interest in rocks translates to overzealous research now that I'm including so much information about crushing, screening, stockpiling, monitoring, hauling, weighing, testing, mix designing, etc., in a professional asphalt magazine. In my research for this issue, I focused quite a bit on dust control and the recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) Subpart OOO from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). All that is also called "the opacity rule" and it deals with the visible emissions/dust that a non-metallic mineral processing plant gives off around crushers, screens, conveyor transfer points, etc.

The folks at the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association (NSSGA) seem confident that the EPA final changes to the opacity rule won't require big changes to producers' current equipment or visible emissions testing. That's excellent news, especially considering the controls both aggregate and HMA producers already have in place to keep stray dust down.

Most equipment manufacturers are a little gunshy when it comes to talking about environmental issues, but the folks at Astec Industries, Chattanooga, and National Environmental Service Co. (NESCO), Mendham, N.J., were eager to point out how cautious industry members are and how effective current equipment is at controlling dust from normal operations. As Larry Thomas, an engineer at Astec pointed out, a 40 mile-an-hour gust of wind will kick up dust on any site, be it a ball field, nursery lot, or crushing operation, but plant owners have means of keeping dust under control with hoods and covers, dust return systems, baghouses and, of course, water. As Thomas reminded me, though, producers use caution with water, as well.

"Controlling dust at the site is not just a matter of throwing water on it," he said. He recommended producers use high pressure (100 to 200 psi), low volume systems to spray small droplets of water over areas to "capture" and weigh down dust. The small droplets allow producers to keep dust down without allowing enormous amounts of water into the material, which would increase drying times. And we all know what that leads to.

The dust suppression systems the Astec family incorporates in its conveying, crushing and screening equipment use this high pressure, low volume spray of water to help keep dust down at the areas producers target. Other companies using similar systems and producers incorporating such retrofits and aftermarket systems prove the conscientious effort this industry makes to keep visible dust to a minimum.

One of the reasons to watch your water spray is, of course, the time and fuel consumption rate it adds when overly wet material hits the HMA drum, but another is compliance with the Clean Water Act. While current issues focus on storm water runoff, any water runoff is up for scrutiny. This issue is a point for the aggregate industry to keep an eye on. While EPA currently focuses on storm water runoff at ready mixed concrete plants, the entity's officers also look at potential storm water runoff issues from aggregate facilities co-located with ready mixed concrete plants.

I checked with NSSGA to make sure HMA plants weren't a target yet, and Vice President of Environmental Services John Hayden reported that EPA's "priorities" for 2008 don't include asphalt plants. It looks as though this segment of the industry is still trusted to regulate itself when it comes to water issues. NSSGA is working with EPA to develop educational materials to help aggregate producers understand what's required of them under the storm water requirements of the Clean Water Act, and additional water runoff from water trucks and spray systems needs to be kept to a minimum. Hayden reminded me that NSSGA has a storm water management guide for aggregate producers that evaluates their permitting and control operations for storm water available at

As luck would have it, OEMs already have their customers in the aggregate and asphalt industry covered when it comes to keeping dust and water runoff under control. With high pressure, low volume systems delivering atomized mists and small droplets of water to coat and suppress dust, minimal water is left to pool or run off the site.

Who would have thought that as a 6- or 7-year-old child I would some day look at that pretty purple rock from Dad and wonder how much dust was suppressed to get it out of the ground? Or how much water was used in the suppression of the dust? Luckily, we have an industry that takes the neighbors' children into consideration when getting rock out of the ground, processing it, transporting it and putting it in HMA mixes. What we end up with is an industry that considers the environmental aspects of beginning, operating and closing down aggregate facilities before the first blasting charge goes off. It's an intriguing part of asphalt production to me.

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender

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Double Up on Summer Safety Devices

(from the June/July Editor's Note of AsphaltPro Magazine)

An online article about dangerous jobs prompted this editorial. Those of you who know me know I harp on safety ad nauseum. This magazine includes an Accident Report in every issue where I agonize for hours trying to find a tactful and respectful way to turn some poor family's tragedy and loss into a useful guide to help others avoid similar accidents.

So when a reporter outside our industry listed "construction" as the top dangerous job, I took an interest.

She didn't tell her readers anything we members of the construction industry didn't already know. The article, as most online articles are, was a generic sort of piece with little substance, telling us it's more dangerous, according to numbers the author gleaned from a Bureau of Labor Statistics site, to be a construction worker than a stunt man. Surprise.

For as harsh as I'm being, I did find something in the article that I've not read in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) or in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommendations or in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that I summarize for you on a regular basis. What she suggested was this: Double up.

She wasn't talking about the buddy system that we often illustrate in our Accident Report—where you have a co-worker responsible for tracking your movements and safety during your shift. She was talking about the availability of your personal protective equipment (PPE).

How many of you take an extra safety vest with you to the work zone? Stop and consider how your vest's effectiveness is reduced if you're sprayed with mud and grime from passing motorists half-way through your shift. The point of the glowing orange or yellow stripes is to catch a driver's eye, and that purpose is negated if your vest is covered with a layer of road camouflage. Take the time to put on a clean vest from the cab of your truck or whatever company vehicle brought you to the site.

When you're working at the plant, have a spare set of gloves nearby. You never know when a loose belt will rip one of yours or when a hot spill will make your current pair "less than comfortable."

How about your safety goggles? An extra pair will keep you safe and everyone working smoothly if a stray piece of aggregate chips the pair you're wearing.

The point is you never want to be without all your PPE in place. So having spare pieces on hand means no downtime in the event of a minor mishap while you go looking for replacement parts. You certainly don't want to continue working without gloves, goggles, a hard hat or a vest (a clean, visible vest), so doubling up on PPE for the summer construction season is a wise and safe suggestion.

One company that we recommend for ordering supplies is Sierra Safety Co., Newcastle, Calif. You can reach them at (916) 663-2026 or visit their Web site at this link. Don't wait to have your safety materials in place. Personal protection is a serious and important aspect of every job. And, as mentioned above, the Accident Report department featured in each issue of AsphaltPro has often referred to NIOSH's recommendation of on-board camera systems to enhance safety. I had the good fortune of meeting up with a representative of ECCO, a Division of ECCO Group, Boise, Idaho, while at CONEXPO, and learned more about that company's monitoring systems. They have an extensive catalog of safety lighting and monitoring devices for construction equipment, and can be contacted at (800) 635-5900 or by visiting their Web site at this link. Also watch the pages of AsphaltPro for examples of their safety products.

Stay Safe,
Sandy Lender

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