Are drivers at risk for coronavirus?

The COVID-19 pandemic has swiftly reached nearly every corner of the United States, effectively bringing the economy to a standstill. While most Americans settle into a quarantined lifestyle, the coronavirus threat has done little to disrupt the nation’s truck drivers who work tirelessly to keep the country well-stocked with supplies and much-needed consumer goods.

What’s being done to protect the nation’s drivers from the coronavirus? Better yet, is it even possible for motor carriers to protect their drivers?

The answers are complicated as fleets scramble to develop solid contingency plans. What is certain though is that motor carriers must prioritize virus prevention and containment as a new area of focus in driver wellness programs.

The FreightWaves Research team recently surveyed 115 motor carriers of all sizes about what safety protocols they have implemented to protect their drivers, as well as what others in the supply chain are doing to curb the spread of the pandemic throughout the U.S.

Nearly 90% of motor carriers surveyed instructed their drivers to maintain personal distance between workers. Around half ordered drivers to remain in their trucks during all loading and unloading procedures while around 44% of motor carriers advised drivers not share pens when filling out paperwork, because plastic “holds” the virus longer than many other surfaces. 

Truckers are at an even greater risk of contracting the virus than the general population as they criss-cross the nation interacting with many people along the way.

The industry’s aging driver population, which according to industry research averages 46-50 years old, find themselves on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight. However, their age makes this demographic a prime target for infection. The CDC reported that as of March 16, among 2,449 U.S. coronavirus patients with known age, 29% were aged 20-44 years and 18% were 45-54 years old.

Coronavirus testing for commercial drivers has been established at a handful of truck stop clinics around the country. But testing capabilities are limited and formal procedures have yet to be determined.

Other motor carriers have utilized e-learning services to educate their drivers on sickness prevention. Ontario, Canada-based CarriersEdge is a provider of online driver training courses for the North American trucking industry.

CarriersEdge provides subscription-based courses that tackle trucker safety from every angle including defensive and distracted driving, HOS compliance, transporting hazardous materials, fire safety, vehicle inspections, drug and alcohol testing, and much more.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, CarriersEdge made a module focusing specifically on sickness prevention to protect drivers from falling ill. The company’s “Road to Wellness” programs are designed to promote driver wellness by outlining areas such as illness, exercise, fatigue and healthy eating.

“About three weeks ago as the pandemic started to gain momentum, we took the bits of the wellness course that focused on sickness prevention and published it as its own module,” said CarriersEdge CEO Jane Jazrawy. “I believe motor carriers should focus on this knowledge before implementing exercise, changing people’s diet or going on a weight-loss program.”

Jazrawy said that CarriersEdge strives to make the courses reflect a day in the life of a driver, which makes it a great method to educate drivers, but she noted that training courses alone can’t change driver behavior. According to Jazrawy, motor carriers need to back up their training with a system of enforcement. 

“As a driver, you could take 50 courses on washing your hands but you still have the choice to not do it,” Jazrawy said.

John Seidl, safety transportation expert and vice president of risk services at Reliance Partners, shares a similar belief that motor carriers should do more to ensure their drivers are protected from deadly pandemics such as the coronavirus.

“We’ve got drivers out there congregating with shippers, receivers and manufacturers in groups well in excess of 10 people with distances that may be less than six feet,” Seidl said. “Drivers are putting themselves at risk.”

Seidl noted that while current FMCSA entry-level driver regulations have targeted driver wellness training for many years, the guidance itself is less than a paragraph long.

49 CFR Part 380.503 states that driver training must include instruction addressing basic health maintenance including diet and exercise as well as the importance of avoiding excessive use of alcohol. He explained that none of these requirements address the threat of viruses or contagious diseases.

While Seidl applauds the FMCSA for its efforts to replace 49 CFR Part 380.501 to 380.513 with updated requirements that expand on driver wellness among other areas, its implementation has been postponed from last month to February 2022.

“Kudos to the FMCSA,” Seidl said. “We’re moving towards improving driver wellness but no one has received that level of training yet.”

Besides hand-washing techniques and the reduction of employee interactions, definite measures to protect drivers from the coronavirus have yet to be implemented. Unlike most Americans who’ve found comfort in working from home, the truckers that choose to drive amidst the health crisis can only do little things to protect themselves from the virus because they can’t self-quarantine.

The advanced age of many long-distance drivers and the underlying health risks that affect a large percentage of them should be of concern to motor carriers. America is relying a great deal on its truck drivers during this time of uncertainty and it seems the most that drivers can do is stock up on hand sanitizer and say a prayer before hitting the road.