The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently advised that everyone wear some type of face covering or mask while in public to slow spread of the novel coronavirus causing the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it has not been mandated on a federal level, the state of New Jersey and some cities and counties are now requiring them, as well as many shippers and receivers.
Fleets across the country are working to provide masks to drivers and other staff – but it's not always easy.
Brent Higgins Trucking, an Arkansas-based refrigerated fleet with 22 trucks, tried ordering surgical masks back in February. "Every one of our orders ended up being canceled to provide for the medical field," Connie Higgins told HDT. "One of our T-shirt poviders stepped in and made some for us. They are a jersey material like a T-shirt. If the driver thinks one is not enough, they can layer more than one." Its shippers started requiring masks this week.
“We are beginning to hear that more shippers are beginning to require masks for drivers that make deliveries, and trucking companies are currently searching for masks to provide to the drivers that don’t already have them,” says Matt Hart, executive director of the Illinois Trucking Association. “Companies have been providing personal protective equipment (PPE), and many of our drivers already had their own PPEs.”
ITA recommends that fleets ask shippers and receivers if face coverings are required for truck drivers while at their facilities.
Fleets and drivers are using a variety of masks, from medical PPE to hand-sewn cloth masks to simple bandanas. The CDC has recommended cloth face coverings for most people, urging that medical supplies such as N95 respirator masks be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.
Fleets Providing Masks to Drivers
At Minnesota-based Brenny Transportation, President and CEO Joyce Sauer Brenny has made sure that every employee and driver has received a mask free of charge, some of which were made by a local seamstress. The masks are worn at the instruction of customers and choice of employees, but if any deliver/pickup location has had a person test positive for coronavirus, drivers are instructed to use masks. Drivers are also instructed to use masks if they are in an area where they cannot maintain the recommended 6-foot distance.
“We have also supplied our drivers with hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes; we disinfect each truck when it returns to the yard; and we sanitize our office, shop, bathrooms, dispatch twice per day,” adds Brenny. “For the most part, our drivers feel this is overblown and they want their life back.”
At Veritable Vegetable, a California-based organic produce distributor, the staff has been given protocols on how to increase sanitation, including when, where and how to properly wear a mask. Masks have been sourced locally for every employee and were made from organic, reusable cloth.
“The health and safety our staff and community are our highest priority while we continue to play our critical role as a distributor of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables,” says CEO Mary Jane Evans.
Averitt Express, located in Cookeville, Tennessee, has distributed face masks to more than 5,000 of its employees, including drivers, dock workers, and other frontline associates, to reduce any potential spreading of the coronavirus.
“Ensuring the safety of our associates on and off the road has always been the first concern of our team,” said Wayne Spain, Averitt’s president and chief operating officer, in a recent press release. “While the recommended use or requirement to wear face masks has been subject to authorities at local and state levels, we’ve decided it’s in the best interest of our associates, customers and the communities we serve to take a proactive stance.”
While some maintenance shops have been able to use N95 respirator masks that were already in stock for technicians or for use in the paint or body service bays, many are taking a backseat to the medical community when it comes to N-95s in particular, according to Taryn Shekitka, director of operations at the South Carolina Trucking Association.
“They would rather pass it on to those with the greatest need,” adds Shekitka, calling the state’s fleet professionals “true salt of the earth people.”
Many of the motor carriers in the Palmetto State have moved office staff to home offices and are either limiting outside visitors in the office or just not allowing it, even limiting the entry of drivers to one day a week or one in/one out in a limited space.
“Most are fighting to make sure that drivers' basic needs are taken care of while on the road, [like] restrooms, facilities, etc.,” says Shekitka. “They are encouraging compliance with shipper/customer requests to take temperatures, ask questions.”
And now that things have slowed down for so many fleets in the state, truck maintenance has increased. Trucks that would be on the road are spending time in the shops, which impacts technicians and parts/service/warranty employees.
“So PPE is getting stretched and protocols are being implemented to protect them as well as they can,” says Shekitka.
Associations Step Up
Like most state trucking associations, the Texas Trucking Association has been stressing to its members to follow the CDC guidelines for COVID-19, as well as any additional mandates issued by local governments.
“Texas truck drivers are on the frontlines, leaving the safety of their homes and families, to ensure communities across the country have the supplies they need,” says Kimberly Leggett, communications director at TXTA. “These drivers are the heroes on the highway during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
National associations, such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, are calling upon the White House and Congress to step up to give truckers across the country more of a helping hand.
“We have raised the alarm to Washington, D.C.,, that truck drivers are much like other first responders and should be given priority to access to PPE, testing with timely results, and proper treatment,” says Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for OOIDA, adding that the association is working on a letter to major grocers to make supplies available to drivers. “Truckers do not have an option to quarantine that is safe. Drivers need to be able to be tested at convenient locations. Those that need quarantine or care should be able to get it.”
But some on the national stage are already giving states some help. The American Trucking Associations has been able to procure a supply of masks and is working with the associations in its federation to get them to fleets who want to purchase them. Ed Crowell, president and CEO of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association, is working with ATA to secure masks for its state association members.
“We just ordered more than 7,000 KN-95 masks, which is highly effective and only a slight step below the N-95, through a supplier ATA located,” says Crowell. “We are distributing these at cost to members who have ordered them for our drivers.”
Separately, Crowell and his team have been able to source hand sanitizer locally and are helping to get it to its member companies on an at-cost basis.
“We will continue to try to source PPE and get it to our member companies until the crisis is over,” says Crowell.
President Shannon Samples Newton and her team at the Arkansas Trucking Association have also been busy procuring masks for its members, while also meeting the needs of their members with useful information and industry advocacy.
“We have been procuring masks, as we can, from local large medical supply companies and re-selling them at our cost to our members,” says Samples Newton. “The type we were able to obtain were the 3-ply disposable surgical masks. These are easier to acquire but [still] meet the needs of the drivers while engaging in limited encounters at truck stops or customer locations.”
Editor in Chief Deborah Lockridge contributed to this story.