Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

18 Secrets of UPS Drivers

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

You may have a good relationship with your UPS driver, but how much do you really know about his or her job? The brown-clad United Parcel Service workers deliver more than 15 million packages a day to more than 220 countries and territories around the world; they even deliver to the North Pole. But what’s it really like to be a UPS driver? Here are some little-known facts from drivers who did their time.

1. They’re always being watched.

UPS knows time is money, and it is obsessed with using data to increase productivity. Jack Levis, UPS's director of process management, told NPR that “one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million,” and “one minute of idle per driver per day is worth $500,000 of fuel at the end of the year.” The hand-held computer drivers carry around, called a DIAD (short for Delivery Information Acquisition Device), tracks their every move. Ever wondered why your UPS man can’t stick around to hear your life story? He probably has between 150 and 200 stops to make before the end of the day, and he’s being timed. “You’re trained to have a sense of urgency,” says Wendy Widmann, who drove for 14 years. “Be polite, but you gotta go.” Sensors inside the truck monitor everything from whether the driver’s seat belt is buckled to how hard they’re braking, and if the truck’s doors are open or closed. All this data is compiled for UPS analysts who use it to come up with time-saving tactics.

2. They go to bootcamp.

All drivers must attend and graduate from a specialized training class called “Integrad,” which teaches them everything they need to know out in the field. They learn how to handle heavy boxes, which are filled with cinder blocks to simulate real packages. They’re taught how to start the truck with one hand while buckling up with the other to save time. And the “slip and fall simulator” teaches them to walk safely in slick conditions. There’s even a miniature delivery route complete with tiny houses “where they will drive in their truck and make simulated deliveries at houses,” says UPS representative Dan Cardillo.

3. Driving in reverse is discouraged.

Except for backing into a loading dock, “we generally will tell them the first rule of backing up is to avoid it,” Cardillo says. The way UPS sees it, backing up increases the likelihood that a driver will unintentionally bump into something (or someone). UPS driver Bill Earle told NPR that he rarely goes a single day without being told he’s backing up too often or too quickly.

4. Good drivers get rewarded…

...with gifts from a catalog. When a driver goes five years without an accident, they get to choose an item from retail stores’ catalogs, including Michael C. Fina. “The more years of safe driving you had, the better the gifts got,” says Kevin Dyer, a former driver who spent 38 years behind the wheel. “One of the first few years I got a highway safety kit. It had everything in there: flares, booster cables, flashlight, tape, you name it. I got a set of golf clubs one year. I wore them out.” One “avoidable” accident bumps you back to zero. “I went seven years and then I backed into a small tree,” says Widmann. “Then I had to start from the beginning again. I was just getting to the good gifts like bikes and gas grills.”

5. Great drivers get a bomber jacket.

A driver who goes 25 years without an accident is inducted into the UPS “Circle of Honor” and receives a special patch and a bomber jacket.

6. The trucks are “big brown microwaves.”

They don’t have air conditioning, so drivers run their routes with the doors open to stay cool. “It is cold in winter and hot in the summer,” Widmann says. “It was wonderful to have 50 and 60 degree days.”

7. Oh, and they’re not trucks.

A UPS worker delivers packages
Scott Olson/Getty Images

At UPS, they’re referred to exclusively as “package cars.”

8. They have to supply their own music.

UPS “package cars” don’t come with radios, so if you want to listen to music, you have to pack your own player.

9. Dog bites are part of the job.

“Most UPS drivers are attacked by dogs,” says one former New Orleans-based UPS driver. “What you do is jump on the hood of the nearest vehicle and don’t move. There were some drivers that sat on the hood of a car for an hour or more.” Of course, UPS doesn’t train its drivers to jump on top of cars to avoid dogs, but it does tell them to shout “UPS!” before entering the property so dogs won’t be caught off guard. Their handheld devices can also keep track of houses that might have dangerous dogs on the property and warn drivers ahead of time. “We wanna protect our drivers,” Cardillo says.

10. They wish you’d meet them halfway.

Want to make your UPS driver’s job easier? In a Reddit thread, one driver said, “if you see them pulling up and you aren't in the middle of something, meet them half way, or walk up to their truck.” Every extra step adds a little bit of time to their day. “If 10 of my 150 stops do that in a day I would get home 10-15 minutes earlier and actually get to spend time with my family.”

11. Facial hair is frowned upon.

You’ll probably never see a UPS driver with a beard. Mustaches are permitted, but can’t grow below the corners of the mouth. And men's hair mustn’t touch the top of the collar.

12. They make good money.

On average, drivers today are paid $30 an hour, according to Glassdoor. That’s double the amount they made in the mid '90s, according to NPR and the head of the Teamsters union, which represents UPS. At the end of his 38-year tenure, Dyer says he was making more than $75,000 a year.

13. And they get decent tips.

Some drivers get cash, especially around the holidays. Wayne Turner, a former driver in California was once greeted at the door by a butler who gave him and his partner each $50. “It was the strangest thing, but we made an extra $50 that day.” But more frequently, drivers get non-monetary tips like wine and food. Occasionally, they’ll get random (but valuable!) stuff: “I had a place that made permanent air filters that you can rinse out,” Turner says. “They gave me those any time I needed one. Those were selling at the time for $65 or $75. A construction company gave me a piece of 16-foot wood that would have cost hundreds of dollars.”

14. Seniority means better routes.

ups truck drives down the street

More tenured drivers get the privilege of bidding for the routes they want. The best routes, employees say, cover lots of ground but have few stops. So rural routes are often run by employees who have done their time.

15. They don't turn left.

By obsessively tracking its drivers (see #1), UPS found that "a significant cause of idling time resulted from drivers making left turns, essentially going against the flow of traffic," according to Elizabeth Rasberry, a former UPS public relations manager. Drivers are instead encouraged to drive in right-hand loops to get to their destination.

Today, many of the routes are designed to avoid left turns, and UPS says the policy has saved 100 million gallons of gas and reduced carbon emissions by 100,000 metric tons since 2004. The habit sticks with drivers long after they've handed in the keys to their big brown truck. Dyer says, "Even today I’ll sit in traffic and I’ll kind of talk to the car in front of me and say, 'Turn right to go left!'"

16. They’re judging you.

“UPS drivers see a lot,” one former driver says. And they’re not just talking about making judgments based on packages. UPS drivers can discern a lot about your life through a cracked door. “We make instant judgments about you. We see if you have a maid. We know what kind of food you’re cooking, or if you have a dog. We know if you have orgies at your house. We can tell when someone’s getting a divorce.”

17. Yes, people try to seduce them.

“There will always be someone on your route who is interested in pursuing a sexual relationship with you,” a former driver says. “The male drivers have stories about women who come to the door dressed in a negligee, and the women experience the same with the opposite sex. It happened to me twice.”

18. They deliver some odd things.

A few notable deliveries: In 1987, UPS delivered an iceberg chunk roughly the size of a fridge to a children’s museum in Venezuela. In 2007, two whales were shipped from Taiwan to Atlanta. And in 2008, a group of 2,200-year-old Chinese terracotta warriors and horses were shipped via UPS to four American museums for exhibition.

See Also:
10 Hotel Secrets from Behind the Front Desk 
12 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Pharmacists
10 Things You Might Not Know About Flight Attendants

John Moore/Getty Images
job secrets
14 Secrets of TSA Agents
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

Last year, more than 964 million people boarded airplanes departing or arriving within the United States. Barring any special security clearance, virtually all of them were filtered through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a federally operated branch charged with screening passengers to ensure they’re complying with the rules of safe air travel.

Some travelers believe the TSA’s policies are burdensome and ineffectual; others acknowledge that individual employees are doing their best to conform to a frequently confusing, ever-changing set of procedures. We asked some former TSA officers about their experiences, and here’s what they had to say about life in blue gloves.


Maine coon cat stepping out of a carrier

According to Jason Harrington, who spent six years at O’Hare Airport as a Transportation Security Officer (TSO), rogue felines have created more havoc and confusion than any suspected criminal. “Cats are a nightmare,” he says. “They don’t want to come out of their carriers, they scratch and claw, and they don’t come when you call them.” A cat that’s made a break for it and who hasn’t been patted down to check for weapons is technically a security breach, which a TSA supervisor could use as justifiable cause to shut down an entire terminal.

Dogs, however, are no problem. “A pat down on a dog amounts to going over and petting them,” Harrington says. “That’s actually pleasant.”


Because TSOs are usually in close proximity to passengers, some checkpoints develop a vocabulary of code words that allows them to speak freely without offending anyone. “Code talk for attractive females was the most common,” Harrington says. An employee might say “hotel papa” to alert others to an appealing traveler heading their way—the “h” is for “hot.” Others might assign a code number, like 39, and call it out. Harrington was also informed by a supervisor that he could signal for a prolonged screening for an annoying passenger if Harrington told him that the traveler was “very nice.”


Any passenger coming through with an elaborate hairdo—either carefully braided hair or the kind of up-do found on women headed for a wedding—means additional inspection will be required, because piled-up hair can conceivably conceal a weapon.

“Just about anything can set off an anomaly in the head area, from braids to a scrunchie to a barrette to a bad hair day,” Harrington says. “And those body scanners are especially fussy when it comes to the head, giving false positives there more than any other area.”


A tired passenger in an airport

“Tina”—a former TSO in the northeast who prefers not to use her real name—says that travelers taking evening flights are typically more cooperative than morning passengers. “People are actually much nastier when they’re flying out in the morning,” she says. “The really late-night travelers are the best ones to be around.” (Also on Tina’s naughty list: business travelers. “They’re generally meaner.”)


Because public criticism of the TSA is so pervasive, Harrington has found that many employees stretch the truth about where they work when asked. “If I had to admit it, I’d say I was working for the Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “When I made mention of that on Facebook, I got a ton of officers who said they did the same thing.”


Airport security personnel monitoring an x-ray monitor

That giant wheel of cheese you’re bringing back from the holidays? It’s going to cause a lot of agitation among employees monitoring the x-ray machine. “A block of cheese is indistinguishable from C4,” Harrington says. “There is no difference on the screen. Meats, too. All organic products look orange on the display and similar to explosives.”


When a passenger enters a full-body scanner, the device operator hits a button to tell the unit whether it’s a he or she. It makes a difference, since a female passenger’s anatomy would raise a red flag when the machine expects to see male-only parts, and vice versa. If a person's gender isn’t easily ascertained on sight and a TSO guesses, a pair of breasts could initiate a delay. “The machines detect things under clothes, and if it doesn’t match what’s been pressed, it means a pat down,” Harrington says.


TSOs typically get assigned to different stations (ticket taker, x-ray operator, shouting-at-you-to-take-your-shoes-off officer) at the security checkpoint, and never for very long: 30 minutes is typically the limit before a new officer is brought in. According to Tina, the revolving schedule is to avoid employee error. “After 30 minutes, you may begin to miss things,” she says.


Harrington’s security checkpoint had a code word for passengers who “opted out,” or refused to submit to the full-body scanners—they were “tulips,” and they proved to be an annoyance.

“It slows down the whole operation and a lot of guys would hate it,” he says. “Now that it’s millimeter [radio] waves and people still opt out, they get annoyed, thinking the passenger doesn’t even know what they’re opting out of.”


A TSA agent looking at a traveller's documents
John Moore/Getty Images

Policies can vary by airport, but generally, security officers sitting up front and checking tickets are looking for irregularities in your identification: If something causes them to be suspicious, they’ll write something on your ticket that would prompt a more thorough inspection. “They’ll also write their badge number and initials,” Tina says, “so the airline knows they’ve been through security when they board.”


According to Tina, turnover rates for TSOs can be high, and that’s due in large part to the perpetual stress of preparing for a hazardous situation. “In 10 months’ time, we went through active shooter training three times,” she says. “Another time, we were told there was a credible threat against the airport and not to wear our uniforms to or from work.”


“The most common complaint [from TSOs] is when passengers ask them to change their gloves before a pat down,” Harrington says,” because we change them all the time. We might have changed them just before getting to someone and passengers will still insist they use new ones in front of their face.”


TSOs undergo regular training and performance reviews where they're expected to simulate a screening in a private room for supervisors. After two years, the probationary period is over, and employees are generally set. “They’d call it being a ‘made’ man or woman,” Harrington says, referring to the mafia term for acceptance. “It’s really hard to get fired at that point. The only way to lose your job would be to commit a crime.”


As federal employees, TSOs don’t enjoy any perks from airlines: Accepting a gift could be cause for termination, according to Tina. “But there’s a loophole,” she says. “If you’re friends with a pilot or have a personal relationship with an airline employee, you can accept it.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.
job secrets
11 Secrets of Volcanologists
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.

Around the world, over 600 million people live near one of 1500 active terrestrial volcanoes. Who's keeping them safe from potential future eruptions? The women and men who study these gas-and-ash-and-lava belching windows into the center of the earth: volcanologists.

You might not be sure what volcanologists do or why they matter—especially if you live thousands of miles away from one of these fiery mountains. So, Mental Floss went searching for answers from four volcanologists working in various capacities around the country, who shared their experiences in the field, under the ocean, and gazing far out into space.


A volcanologist takes gas emission measurements during an assessment mission inside the crater at Mount Nyamulagira
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"When I tell people what I do, 95 percent of the time they ask, 'What is that?'" says Arianna Soldati of the University of Missouri, who researches lava flows.

Volcanology is the study of how volcanoes form, what they're made of, and what they eject, among other areas of research. Many volcanologists have degrees in geology; some, like Soldati, are physical geologists, collecting samples on site and then analyzing them to figure out their composition. Others are geophysicists who study tectonic plates and their role in volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Geochemists and petrologists study volcanic gasses and minerals, and geodesists look at deformations on and around volcanoes to figure out if magma is pooling up underneath them. All these disparate disciplines work together, Soldati says, to "understand how the planet works, so we can understand how eruptions work."


Jacob Lowenstern is Chief of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a government agency that monitors our country's 169 active land volcanoes, largely via observatories in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. But it also offers assistance and training to volcanologists in other countries because, as Lowenstern points out, an active volcano system respects no human borders. The program helps keep people and animals safe from the destruction wrought by lava flows, mudslides, and gas: When eruptions happen, localities issue alerts based on data from USGS.

Underwater volcanoes can create shipping hazards, like floating chunks of pumice, but a land-based volcano can create serious chaos worldwide. When Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, its miles-high ash cloud grounded aircraft to and from Europe and Britain for about a week. "We didn't even know what concentration of ash it was safe to fly through, because no one had studied it before," Soldati says. (They do know now, although the answer depends on how long the aircraft is aloft [PDF]). Back when Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, it kicked off the Year Without a Summer, as ash circled the globe and blocked out the Sun, resulting in crop failures, famine, and a total of 100,000 human deaths. "At some point, something truly global [like that] is going to happen again," Lowenstern says. Volcanologists aim to be prepared.


An estimated 80 percent of eruptions happen beneath the oceans' waves. It hasn't been easy for volcanologists to research them—for starters, there was no comprehensive map of the ocean floor until just a few years ago. And not being able to see a volcano that's 3000 feet underwater makes observation … challenging. Historically, scientists mostly monitored underwater volcano activity using fickle, battery-operated equipment installed on the seafloor, which could only store (rather than transmit) data. The first complete footage of an underwater eruption wasn't captured till 2009.

William Wilcock says technology has finally caught up to the thirst for information. He studies the Pacific Ocean's Axial Seamount—the most active volcano in the Northeast Pacific—via the Cabled Array ocean observatory, 550 miles of fiber-optic cable equipped with sensors that allow scientists to to monitor the Juan de Fuca ridge off of Oregon's coast. Using the array, they can monitor the chemicals and temperature in the water column, measure the volcano's magma chamber, and keep tabs on earthquakes, which could signify an eruption.

The array sends underwater volcanologists data in real time—fast enough that they can sometimes deploy autonomous vehicles for a closer look at eruptions as they happen. In April 2015, the project's team was able to witness an entire eruption of Axial Seamount from start to finish, leading to “the most detailed observations ever made” of an undersea volcano, as Wilcock told The Washington Post. The data they gleaned helped them understand how the seamount's caldera falls during eruptions and then reinflates with gases and magma before reaching a particular threshold, at which it erupts. Understanding how that inflation works is important for land volcanoes too, which is part of why data from the array is posted on the internet for scientists around the world to use.


The cloud-covered Mayon volcano spews ash as it erupts near the Philippines

The only scientist NASA sent to the moon was geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who flew on Apollo 17. (All of the other astronauts were military men-turned-NASA test pilots.) Schmitt—who was actually allergic to regolith, a.k.a. moon dust—helped prove that the moon was once volcanically active. This fact makes NASA's Alex Sehlke incredibly proud—and envious. He's a volcanologist who conducts research in Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Monument in preparation for the agency's planned return there in a few years. Craters of the Moon is geologically similar to our actual moon, in part because it was formed by lava erupting from the middle of the continent, not a juncture where two plates meet; moon volcanos were likely formed in a similar fashion, since the moon is covered, basically, by a single giant plate.

Volcanologists like Sehlke usually play supporting roles in space exploration. They test equipment and speculate about how, say, Craters of the Moon's lava tubes are like those under the surface of the actual moon and might make for a good base of operations. "Imagine looking at the surface of the moon [from Earth] when you're planning a mission and saying, ‘Hmm, looks alright,'" Sehlke says. "But there are questions we need to answer before we go—maybe the terrain is treacherous."

They may also offer guidance from mission control to astronauts (often about areas that look like they might be interesting to explore), and analyze data from probes—like the first images of an ice volcano erupting on Saturn's moon Enceladus, captured by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.


Sulfide chimneys at the Urashima vent site in the Pacific
NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Hydrothermal vents—openings in the seafloor where water enters, becomes heated, then spurts back out—support a lot of weird microbes that Wilcock says may be similar to the first organisms that ever existed on our planet. Studying them and the conditions that created them may help us understand how to look for life on other planets and moons—one of NASA's primary objectives. But Sehlke and others are also looking for life by scanning data from probes exploring our solar system: "Wherever volcanoes sit, on Enceladus or elsewhere, there is heat or fluids that maybe provide the necessary environment for microorganisms like the ones we know on Earth," Sehlke says. Volcanoes like these "give us the highest chance of finding life" out in space.


While volcanoes created Earth's original atmosphere by emitting the carbon dioxide and nitrogen necessary for life, other volcanic gasses, like sulfur dioxide, increase the ability of our current atmosphere to retain heat [PDF]. "Learning how these things balance out is hugely important to understanding our future" on the planet, Soldati says. That's why new studies are looking at the links between volcanic activity and climate change, and how they may exacerbate each other.

Some volcanologists are particularly concerned about Iceland, where melting ice caps may be releasing pressure on magma chambers, contributing to more—and more explosive—volcanic eruptions in the future. The effect of the reduced pressure is similar to how “the cork of a champagne bottle flies into the air when it has loosened sufficiently,” geophysicist Magnus Guðmundsson told Hakai magazine. Another new study urged those making models of our climate future to include volcanic eruptions as a variable, which they find are under-sampled in such models but can have big effects on temperatures, sea levels, global radiation, and ocean circulation, among other key elements of the climate.


A volcanologist examines seismic charts
Ulet Ifansasti, Getty Images

Volcanologists use a lot of very high-tech equipment in their line of work. Seismometers measure earthquakes on volcanic slopes. Infrared cameras measure the heat of lava flows. Correlation spectrometers measure the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, which is released when magma is rising to the surface (and so can signal when a volcano might be ready to erupt). Tiltmeters measure, literally, the tilt of the land around a volcano. If instruments like these, having been mounted on a volcano, fall apart during an eruption, "we sometimes use helicopter drops to put new equipment on the ground," Lowenstern says. More and more, though, volcanologists monitoring land volcanoes rely on equipment mounted on aerial or space-based unmanned craft, "so we don't put people in harm's way." This includes technology called InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), which, from a satellite in space, can measure a volcano stretching and contracting. That helps scientists keep tabs on just what the magma inside a volcano is doing—and whether it's about to come up.


Out in the field, Soldati says, her most important tools are her notebook, for jotting observations, and her steel rock hammer, which she uses both to chip away at rock and to gather samples of molten lava. To grab a sample, she swings into the lava with the pointed end of the hammer, then drops the molten material—which is around 2000°F—into a pail of water; quickly cooling the lava in this way turns it to glass (slow cool it, and it becomes rock), which she transports back to the lab.

Once there, Soldati relies on machines like a concentric cylinder viscometer, which melts lava samples so she can measure their viscosity—which tells her how explosive a volcano's eruptions are. Less viscous lava trickles out of a volcano, while more viscous, and hence more explosive, lava can blow out the whole side of a mountain, sending burning lava, rocks, and other debris flying.


Volcanologist suit

One thing field volcanologists almost never use: those clichéd silver flame-proof proximity suits. "They're heavy, and since you usually have to walk hours to get to your field site, no one wants to carry all that weight," Soldati says. Besides, "heat is almost never the hazard that matters in the situations in which we work," writes Aaron Curtis, a volcanologist working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (You have a greater chance of "being hit by ballistics, or getting gassed," he notes.) "The reason you see those suits so often is that they look really cool on TV."

So what do they wear? Jessica Ball, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey, writes that "sturdy boots, hard hats, work gloves, rip-resistant clothing with long sleeves, and sunglasses or safety goggles are pretty standard, and I will add a gas mask if I’m going to be in an area with lots of fumes. Also, sunscreen is always important, because I’m often out in the sun all day."


Lava and flying debris aren’t the only hazards during fieldwork. Tina Neal, a volcanologist with the USGS, has reported that she’s had several encounters with bears while working at Ukinrek Maars in Alaska. She also says, "I think the aircraft work of volcanologists is as dangerous if not more so than the active volcanoes we visit and study." Geologist Christina Heliker has described the most fearful moments during her time on staff at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as being those that involved flying in a helicopter over continuously active Pu`u `O`o. Once, while trying to return to camp after mapping lava flows, “It was almost dark, and we were sandwiched between an incandescent field of `a`a [lava] and this thick layer of clouds that were glowing orange from the reflected light of the lava,” she told an interviewer. “I was plenty relieved when the pilot decided to give it up and fly out to somewhere else.”


Volcanologists aren't drawn to their work only because of the destructive power of their research subjects. "[Volcanoes] also have a positive impact on our life," Soldati says. She points out that volcanoes fertilize the soil—some of the most productive crops on our planet are grown in mineral-rich volcanic ash. They also create new land; the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea has added 500 acres to the Big Island since 1983. So don't say volcanoes never give back.


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