Trucking in the time of Coronavirus

A red articulated lorry with the Royal Mail logo on the side with a double-deck trailer on a motorway.
A Royal Mail truck

The last couple of weeks have been a good time for me in terms of getting work, which had been a bit thin on the ground since the end of the last Christmas period. Usually my work involves a lot of air freight and that dried up at the start of the year, as it often does, but this year the Chinese New Year (which always results in a drastic drop in the amount of freight coming into the country) coincided with the initial outbreak of the Coronavirus in China. At the same time, a lot of the other work I had been doing last year (such as trunking for a big pallet moving operation) dried up for this and other reasons. I am qualified to drive articulated lorries (artics), but much of the work I had until two weeks ago was driving rigid trucks. Over Christmas I did several weeks’ work with the Royal Mail as a temp, and since the ‘lockdown’ started I have been doing several shifts a week with them again, albeit at a different depot to before.

Royal Mail are a pretty good company to work for, even as an agency driver. This is, I believe, in large part the product of it having a strong union. The company have introduced strong social distancing measures although the nature of work on the shop floor means it is sometimes difficult to stay 2m apart from others, but in the transport offices, only one driver is allowed in at a time (to sign in and out and pick up and drop off paperwork). They have toilets at the depots which any driver can use, which are normally well-maintained and clean, but on occasions where I have had to stop, I have not had any complaints. There has been no congestion to speak of; I have not hit a single traffic jam, either on the way in or during my runs (which have been long inter-depot runs), this whole fortnight. I have not had to make diversions to avoid congestion or delays on the M1, which I would normally have to do on a regular basis; even at 5pm, the roads are clear.

I had been working for other companies in the couple of weeks while the outbreak in the UK built up and I noticed that other companies had been getting more relaxed in their usual health and safety rules; they often demand that you hand your keys over when they are loading (so you do not pull the truck off the loading bay when, for example, they are trying to drive a forklift into or out of the back). This has changed in many places in favour of simply minimising contact between you and them. However, this is not the case everywhere. I follow the Twitter account of Truck & Driver magazine and they have posted numerous stories of depots refusing drivers access to toilets (which is illegal) and service stations withdrawing showers and closing most of the food outlets, leaving drivers who are out on the road with no way to get food. One went back to his yard because of lack of food.

For a period in mid to late 2018, my biggest source of work was Amazon. A local company (which had mostly been subcontracting to an air-freight operator near Heathrow) branched out as Amazon needed traction to pull its trailers from a big depot in Weybridge, near to the M25/A3 junction on the south-western edge of London. This is 10 miles from my house, a 20 minute ride down a fast dual carriageway. For the first few months the work was great: a ride up to a depot somewhere in the Midlands (usually Coalville or Rugeley, sometimes Peterborough), swap for a loaded trailer and pull it back to Weybridge. Then the work got more varied and I was increasingly visiting other depots, which they have in every part of the country, and attitudes to drivers and the rules they imposed varied very widely. For example, at Tilbury they demanded I hand over my keys and go and sit in their waiting area when the truck was not coupled to a trailer, let alone being loaded. This cannot be based on anything but a mistrust and contempt for drivers, an assumption that we are at once perverse and stupid, that we would deliberately hook up to a trailer that is being loaded and pull it off for no reason.

Similar policies exist at many other depots: at Weybridge, for example, drivers are expected to hand over keys as well has have a brake lock fitted to their vehicle during loaded; they are also not allowed to decouple (which would eliminate any hazard) or even leave the site. (At Peterborough, they actually told me to go and wait at the nearby motorway service area as they did not have any space for waiting vehicles on site; similarly, Rugeley did not allow breaks on site due to lack of room, so we had to take our chances on the couple of lay-bys on the road back to Lichfield.) In response to my observations about Amazon’s policies, the person behind the T&D Twitter account told me a story of being kept waiting at an Amazon depot in Dunfermline for five hours (when it was nearly empty) and of someone banned from a site for refusing to hand over their keys while decoupled.

Now that Coronavirus means that staff will not want unnecessary contact with strangers who have been to who knows where and in contact with who knows whom, one would have thought that these pointless, insulting “health and safety” practices would be scaled back and perhaps left in the past, but it seems some of Amazon’s managers (as the policies are completely inconsistent) are in no mood to change their policies; perhaps they care as little for their own staff’s well-being as for people who work for anyone else. The demand that drivers sit for hours in a small waiting room with a dozen strangers is a major health hazard and it must stop, and haulage bosses must ensure that their drivers are not subject to this unnecessary risk. Sadly, we can expect that many will not, and unions in the industry — unlike in large, formerly nationalised operations such as Royal Mail — are almost non-existent.

Image source: Paul Evans, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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