Defensive driving

From the June 2020 issue

Employee safety is at the heart of all great organizations and has never been more important than now as we face off against COVID-19. Normally, the fleet organization is concerned about safety behind the wheel and mitigating preventable crashes. These days, however, the focus turns to avoiding exposure to an invisible enemy – a virus that can cause serious illness and even death.

The NAFA Fleet Management Association has been communicating with members and collecting and sharing their stories for months now in order to ensure widespread knowledge of the dangers, and mitigation strategies that work.

The fleet department is not usually considered frontline in most organizations. After all, they support the frontline workers by acquiring, managing and repairing the vehicles and equipment used by those workers in emergency response, delivery, transit, snow clearance, sales, utility repair and so on.

The nature of the threat caused by this pandemic, though, has changed our definition of frontline worker as employees working ‘behind the scenes’ risk significant exposure to the virus. Consider mechanics in a City garage repairing fire trucks, commercial drivers delivering food supplies, or transit drivers in our bigger cities. All are essential workers with high levels of exposure who need as much protection as their employers can provide. While we still need to promote safe driving, there are many other things we need to do to keep employees from getting sick.

The challenges are significant, but different, for fleet employees working outside their homes and those told to shelter in place. Risks faced in the workplace include:

Contamination on surfaces – This includes vehicles, tools, shop and common areas. This might be the most obvious source of risk and the most easily dealt with. One of our fleet managers described his approach to vehicle cleanliness prior to allowing them to enter the shop. “They all get wiped down and cleaned with bleach … steering wheel, shifter, keys, everything that might have been touched,” the manager said. “We also clean the whole shop twice per shift with bleach. That includes doorknobs, bathrooms, breakrooms, wherever exposure might be.”

Contamination from other people – This includes co-workers, customers and supervisors. Some people may be more conscientious than others when it comes to practicing social distancing, but the protection of all employees must be paramount and, in this case, it is definitely better to be safe than sorry.

Availability of PPE – Wearing masks, gloves or other protective clothing should be enforced where the situation warrants it.

Availability of parts, tools and another set of hands – Spending freezes may mean the proper part or tool is not available. Social distancing may mean a mechanic must work alone. Neither should compromise the safety of your employees.

Ability of supervisors to be present – Supervising from an acceptable social distance may not be the most effective in specific situations and could impact safety.

Access to basic necessities – Meeting basic needs for food and bio-breaks can be a challenge with canteens and other facilities locked down. This can have serious impacts on employee safety, whether it’s an onsite mechanic or a cross-country truck driver.

The employees who are at home, working or not, face many of the above challenges as they navigate their personal lives. They may also bear financial and emotional hardships from loss of work and fewer human interactions. In a recent article, Corey Woinarowicz of NOCELL observes that a new level of empathy has emerged in dealing with such a blurred boundary between everyone’s work-life balance.

“Having people ask for help and letting them know it’s okay to ask is crucial,” he says.

With all of this in mind, the following tips, collected over the past two months, could help your fleet organization ensure the safety of employees.

Alter operating hours of shops, deliveries or other fleet operations to minimize interaction among employees and between employees and customers as well as to provide extra time for cleaning and addressing basic needs.

You may only be able to use every second bay in a maintenance shop, so use two shifts with half your normal number of mechanics. Your commercial drivers may not have access to restaurants so plan extra time for him or her to make meals on the road.

Be open and frank and communicate more than you ever thought possible. Do not assume that everyone knows how to wash their hands or cleanse their work area. Post signs, write policies and procedures and confirm that they are read, understood and followed.

Conduct a formal risk analysis of your specific operations and the risks to employees. Identify risk exposures and evaluate them based on probability and impact. Avoid frequent, severe risks and choose appropriate reduction or transfer tactics for less frequent or serious exposures. This may result in minimizing the number of drivers accessing a single vehicle or requiring customers to call ahead to schedule maintenance at a time when both the necessary parts and labour are available.

Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning materials with detailed instructions for their use. Wear single-use disposable gloves when handling common-use items such as fuel pumps or tools and dispose of gloves properly.

Collect data on your operations for future analysis. How do extra cleaning time, less interaction and changes in processes impact productivity? Are there some positives here to retain in the future?

Reinforce positive behaviours that emerged during the pandemic. Do not reinstate non-essential travel that you learned can be done through a conference call. Be a little more careful and a little less rushed. Take time for virtual or in-person happy hours.

Fleet professionals are proving
to be resilient, innovative and resourceful in this crisis and are to be applauded in the essential work they are performing. Keeping fleet employees safe has a new meaning these days as it goes well beyond driver behaviour behind the wheel and impacts every aspect of that employee’s life. You can find more stories and examples of how organizations are accomplishing this at NAFA Fleet Management Association’s COVID-19 Resource Center at https://bit.ly/2YYNMhk.

Kate Vigneau, CAFM is director of professional development, NAFA — Fleet Management Association.