While the majority of the population is urged to stay at home, the country is relying on the transport and logistics sector to maintain the delivery of goods, and most importantly food and medical supplies, which have seen a substantial increase in demand. People working in the haulage industry are identified as key workers given the importance of maintaining a supply network during the COVID-19 crisis and related lockdown in the UK. There has been, though, relatively little open discussion about how the situation is affecting the industry and its workers. In this blog, Dr Sheena Johnson and Dr Lynn Holdsworth discuss the changes to the working environment in the sector, and the support necessary for drivers.
- The coronavirus pandemic, alongside the ageing workforce and the health risks associated with the job, could negatively impact on the professional driving workforce.
- Changes in regulations have been implemented in the transport and logistics sector in response to COVID-19, but they are likely to have an impact on the health and safety of drivers.
- Alongside these changes in regulations, we urge the Government to remind employers of the importance of driver health, safety and wellbeing, and provide best practice guidelines to support this.
As part of our research into the health and wellbeing of the ageing workforce within the transport and logistics sector, we set up the Age, Health and Professional Drivers’ (AHPD) Network, which works to highlight the importance of protecting the health and wellbeing of professional HGV drivers. Professional HGV drivers are an ageing workforce exposed to a variety of health risks linked to the nature of their work. The transport and logistics sector was already facing driver shortages and a struggle to maintain driver numbers given the high proportion of older workers approaching retirement, and the limited numbers of younger drivers entering the workforce. The AHPD Network now wants to focus a spotlight on the impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on the industry, and its professional drivers. We argue the current situation, alongside the ageing workforce and the health risks associated with the job, brings the perfect storm of issues that could negatively impact on the professional driving workforce. We asked AHPD members to tell us what the situation is like for them as the industry responds to the COVID-19 crisis and draw on some of their answers here.
Changes in guidelines
Changes in regulations intended to help with the flow of goods have been implemented in the transport and logistics sector in response to COVID-19, including:
- relaxation of driver hours to allow drivers to work longer hours;
- relaxation of driver training requirements;
- rule changes meaning drivers whose qualification card expires between March and September can continue driving without renewal;
- the exemption of MOT testing for vehicles for three months;
- temporary removal of routine medicals to facilitate renewal of driving licenses.
These changes are likely to have implications for the health and safety of drivers, and companies have to manage a fine balancing act to keep goods moving and protect their drivers.
Impact on companies
Companies have been disparately affected, with some reporting being run off their feet, especially those involved in food distribution. Online orders have also increased. Others though have seen their work dry up almost completely, with an estimate of nearly 50% of lorries currently parked up. Companies that are still moving goods have been affected by staff absences due to shielding, childcare or sickness. Whereas some companies have been able to provide full pay to individuals not able to work or have taken advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme, others have offered no more than statutory sick pay, which may encourage people to work whilst unwell for financial reasons.
Impact on individual drivers
The average age of a HGV driver is estimated at 57 years with about 13% over the age of 60. Professional drivers are recognised within the transport and logistics sector as comprising an older, and potentially less healthy, workforce due to some of the risks to health that are associated with the nature of the job. These risks include obesity, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, exposure to stress and sleep deprivation or disturbance. Given the associated risks of COVID-19 to older individuals, and those who have underlying health conditions, this is a concern. A significant proportion of the workforce are absent from work due to adhering to shielding guidance or because they are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19, with reports of over a fifth of the workforce being absent in some companies. Other employees are still in work but fall into the vulnerable category meaning extra care must be taken to reduce the increased risk they face associated with contracting COVID-19.
In addition to reducing risks to physical health, it is important that companies remember to also place emphasis on mental health and wellbeing. Professional drivers are facing numerous challenges that could negatively impact on this. For example: concerns about contracting COVID-19; the extension of their working hours and increased work demands; increased isolation due to furloughing or whilst on the road and experiencing reduced contact with people due to social distancing measures; uncertainty about jobs, incomes and possible redundancy down the line; concerns about potentially increasing the risk to their family members if they are placed at increased risk whilst at work.
Looking after the workforce
Both employers and employees need support during this outbreak. Companies would benefit from the recommendations highlighted in the joint industry letter that has been produced, asking for more changes to protect the industry stating that the existing changes are welcome but not enough.
Both the Government and employers can support individual staff. Before the COVID-19 crisis the AHPD Network produced Health and Wellbeing Best Practice Guidelines, giving information and links to resources and support. These are arguably more important than ever as the transport and logistics sector responds to the COVID-19 crisis. Alongside the current changes in regulations, we urge the Government to remind companies of the importance of the health, safety and wellbeing of their drivers. We hope that the best practice guidelines provide concrete, practical recommendations that the Government can include in guidance for the industry during this time.
We further suggest that the Government make recommendations, both within the transport and logistics industry and more broadly to employers in general, to ensure the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on mental health is understood and employee mental health protected.
In addition to the best practice guidelines, we recommend that employers pay attention to:
- adhering to specific guidelines linked to COVID-19, such as social distancing;
- ensuring good communication is in place with drivers, now more than ever they can feel isolated from other employees. This should include furloughed employees;
- placing increased emphasis on the protection of employee mental health. Mental health support can include the support already provided by a company and specific COVID-19 mental health support (eg Mind, the mental health charity has published COVID-19 related advice);
- providing bereavement support.
Take a look at our other blogs exploring issues relating to the coronavirus outbreak.
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