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Published: Friday, 1/28/2005

Mandatory background check to begin for haz-mat drivers in Ohio

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Ohio truck drivers who want to add hazardous-material qualification to their licenses will have to go through federally mandated background checks beginning Monday, but checking all current haz-mat drivers will take five years, a state agency spokesman said.

The Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles has hired a contractor designated by federal authorities to collect driver data to set up service centers in Ohio for fingerprinting and interviewing haz-mat truck drivers.

The first such center, near Columbus, will open next week. Others will open around the state by March 31, when checks for current haz-mat drivers will begin.

Fred Stratmann, a spokesman for the motor vehicles bureau, said northwest Ohio locations have not yet been determined, and it is the responsibility of the contractor, Integrated Biometric Technology LLC, to set them up.

The fingerprints and histories will be forwarded to the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration.

Those who have been convicted of certain felonies or are fugitives, who are not legal U.S. residents, who have been found mentally incompetent, or are otherwise deemed a national security or terrorism threat will be barred from holding a hazardous materials endorsement to their commercial driver's license.

Dean Kaplan, the owner and vice president of K-Limited, a Toledo-based tank truck line, said he appreciates the reason for the background checks - his firm already screens its new drivers' backgrounds.

But a 60-day period to get results from the government is giving him "heartburn" - especially for new hires who K-Line trains to handle hazardous cargoes.

"It's going to be hard for us to keep new guys hanging" while their histories and fingerprints are being checked, Mr. Kaplan said. "That 60-day wait is the killer."

K-Limited employs about 70 drivers. Last year, the company hired 22, but 10 left, Mr. Kaplan said.

While training some drivers takes that long, Mr. Kaplan said, more experienced hires can be ready to drive a tank truck in as little as two weeks.

However, if they have to wait, they'll find a job hauling non-dangerous loads rather than lose paychecks - an industry-wide driver shortage means there's plenty of work to be found, he said.

The situation may create a special shortage of haz-mat drivers, Mr. Kaplan added. Those who work at companies that handle hazardous cargoes only occasionally may let their qualification lapse rather than endure the hassle and expense of maintaining it, he said.

Al Bishop, the president of Roeder Cartage in Lima, Ohio, said his firm doesn't hire anyone with fewer than three years' experience in the hazardous materials sector, so the time delay for new haz-mat endorsements won't affect his company.

But Mr. Bishop said he thought the whole program was "on hold" and was not aware that, starting March 31, his 75 haz-mat qualified drivers will need to participate in the program when their endorsements come up for renewal.

While a commercial driver's license needs to be renewed every four years, haz-mat endorsements are good for five.

About 96,000 Ohio truck drivers hold the special permits, Mr. Stratmann said.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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