Mari-Amanda A. Dyal, PhD, Kennesaw State University; Edward M. Hitchcock, PhD, NIOSH; David M. DeJoy, PhD, NIOSH

Purpose: A case study was conducted to learn about Local / Short-Haul (L/SH) Transportation companies and stakeholders public health information seeking and work experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Background. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for industry and workers. Employers in industries deemed essential continued operating while simultaneously modifying processes to keep customers and workers safe, even as the science and public health guidance were still developing. In particular, the trucking industry emerged as essential, tasked with delivering requisite items to retail stores and healthcare facilities. Employers had to navigate these tumultuous times often without a specified roadmap outlining best practices for protecting workers from COVID-19 risks.

Because of their critical role during the pandemic, the research team approached stakeholders and employers within the local/short haul (L/SH) trucking industry to learn more about their experience and the impact of the pandemic. The focus of this investigation was to learn how the L/SH industry sought and used public health and occupational safety information during a crisis (e.g., pandemic), with the goal of using the findings to inform future efforts during times of emergency.

Approach. Using a case study approach, nine experts representing companies with L/SH operations participated in structured interviews from November 2020 to January 2021. Companies within the sample represented the transportation of various freight: container, high and low velocity, and refrigerated and specialized commodities. Job titles were at the director/manager level and reflected a variety of areas: fleet safety, compliance, risk management, and operations. All participants were directly involved with their company’s pandemic response as part of their job responsibilities. Following the Risk Information Seeking and Processing Model (RISP) theoretical framework (Mead & Rimal, 2014) , interview questions addressed Information seeking (ways of assessing types of information, informal and formal sources of information, seeking motivations, information channels, evaluation of information, and satisfaction with available information); Response (targeted information processing as it relates to the implementation of the information gathered during the seeking process including information suitability, implementation barriers, communication of implementation procedures, and the participation and support of affected parties); and Impact (lessons learned and future safeguards). Also included were sections dedicated to assessing the status of company operations and gathering dissemination suggestions.

Content analysis techniques were used to analyze data to quantify pervasive themes/concepts and the meaning behind them. Verbatim transcription took place to capture direct and relevant quotes from respondents. Finally, points of divergence and convergence were specified among respondents to provide overall themes of the data and identify irregularities.

Findings. Within each section of the interview protocol, several similarities were noted among respondents.

Company operations. There were no plans in place (pre-pandemic) for managing such an event. Operations were steady with some adjustment for onboarding and trainings. There was a notable increase in incidents, inspections, and distractions. Lastly, customer policy changes caught many by surprise (i.e., drivers not being allowed out of trucks).

Information seeking. The types of collected information varied from scientific recommendations of do’s and don’ts to lockdown restrictions. Motivations for information seeking included keeping employees safe and business afloat. Seeking methods varied, and evaluation of information simply involved credible source checks.

Response. Respondents reported that PPE was a priority and sought creative outlets with shortages. Although companies expressed pride in their response, they did experience non-compliance with information that was implemented. Employee input was not sought, and opportunities for dialogue were abandoned. Supplemental services/programs outside of what was already offered (e.g., EAP) were lacking, but companies did provide support in other ways (e.g., truck modifications).

Impact. All respondents reported that morale was well at the time of their interviews. Most reported expecting to get back to normal; although some noted that it will take some time to shake off the “new” normal. Most lessons learned related to embracing innovation and readiness/flexibility for change during a crisis. Overall, most respondents felt they could handle future emergencies of this nature, and there were very few concerns cited for the company and industry.

Discussion. Based upon these findings, notable themes emerged that set the stage for future research and practice in the L/SH industry. These included: 1) lack of a standardized or consistent approach to information seeking; 2) lack of a mental health prioritization in facilitating the pandemic response; 3) employee input was not sought in terms of information-seeking or implementation protocols; 4) flexibility and readiness are powerful lessons learned.

Implications. The collected data and associated themes provide a unique perspective of the pandemic experience within the L/SH industry, which suggests that default procedures be evaluated to emphasize 1) emergency preparedness for both no-notice (e.g., earthquakes) and slow onset (e.g., pandemic) events, 2) the role and importance of employee voice, 3) mental health prioritization, and 4) industry standards for crises, especially when it comes to seeking and implementing information for employee and company health.

Tags: Case studies; single study; informal field studies; or similar reports and findings, COVID-19, Hazardous Work Environments and Safety, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Organizational Practices, Safety Climate; Safety Management; and Training, Social and Organizational Environment, Transportation; warehousing; and utilities