Researcher highlights widespread implications of COVID-19 and trucking

November 19, 2020

Tyson Fisher

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Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic not gone away, but it has gotten significantly worse in the past few weeks. Michael Lemke, a former trucker turned researcher with a doctorate in psychology, has been looking into the pandemic specifically as it pertains to truckers.

Lemke’s curriculum vitae is more than 20 pages long and impressive. The assistant professor in the department of social sciences at the University of Houston-Downtown has more than 30 peer-reviewed papers published, nearly 20 peer-reviewed conference presentations, co-authored one book and has received several grants. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of his accomplishments.

What is not mentioned in that long list of accomplishments is Lemke’s time as a truck driver. At the age of 21, he went to a company trained him and got him his CDL under the condition he would drive for them for a certain amount of time. Lemke spent about five years as a trucker.

Lemke eventually earned his Ph.D. in community psychology in 2013 from Wichita State University. Much of his work has been devoted to the trucking industry. Specifically, Lemke has focused on long-haul truckers’ wellbeing.

It should come to no surprise then that when COVID-19 paralyzed the nation’s economy earlier this year, Lemke shifted his focus to trucker health in relation to COVID-19. Lemke has published three commentary papers in three scientific journals this year that called for more research on COVID-19 and long-haul truck drivers.

COVID-19 and road safety

In April, Lemke published an article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine titled “A novel COVID‐19 based truck driver syndemic? Implications for public health, safety, and vital supply chains.” A syndemic is “the presence of two or more disease states that adversely interact with each other, negatively affecting the mutual course of each disease trajectory, enhancing vulnerability, and which are made more deleterious by experienced inequities,” according to the journal The Lancet.

In other words, the health concerns that have been present among truckers for decades combined with COVID-19 has made drivers an extremely vulnerable population. The long-haul trucking environment leads to “pronounced health disparities” that characterize OTR truckers. Long hours, exposure to air pollutants, and time pressures contribute to poor diets, lack of physical activity, poor sleep health and high rates of smoking. Even worse, many truckers have poor health insurance, lack of medical service access on the road, or both.

“Together, the unique co‐occurrence of health disparities observed among long‐haul truck drivers and known COVID‐19 infection, morbidity, and mortality risks suggest the possibility of a novel COVID‐19‐based truck driver syndemic, with widespread implications for public health and safety, and the resilience of vital supply chains,” Lemke said in the paper.

This can be dangerous for all motorists. If a driver is infected with COVID-19, his or her ability to safely operate a truck may be compromised.

Additionally, COVID-19 can potentially exacerbate the already high driver turnover rate at many carriers. Certain conditions may disqualify truckers from driving. A reduction in medically qualified drivers combined with waivers of hours-of-service rules for relief efforts may force whatever drivers are left to work longer hours with more time pressures, decreasing road safety.

COVID-19 and the trucking network

Lemke published another paper this year in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine titled “Commercial Transport During a Pandemic: Network Analysis to Reconcile COVID-19 Diffusion and Vital Supply Chain Resilience.” This paper calls for research to be done on how truckers’ interactions with people contribute to the acquisition and transmission of COVID-19.

As millions of Americans were affected by stay-at-home orders, truckers not only stayed on the job, but in some ways, had to work even harder. Distribution of medical supplies and essential goods made trucking more important than ever. Consequently, that puts supply chain workers, including truckers, in the line of fire regarding COVID-19. Lemke would like to see more research on the movement patterns and social interactions of truckers. Such information could have “epidemiological significance,” the paper states.

Lemke points out that the lack of personal protective equipment, screening/testing and ways to self-quarantine or seek treatment exacerbates the increased COVID-19 risk truckers face. Mapping truckers’ interactions can be used for:

  • Mapping space and time dynamics of infections.
  • Determine correlations of infection spread in time and space.
  • Identify super-spreaders.
  • Discover possible roles that different truck drivers might play in epidemics.
  • Explore scenarios on stopping or delating infection spread based on changing network structures, such as changing routes or implementing physical distancing.

Put simply, the long distance and wide-ranging interactions that occur within the trucking industry can prove to be valuable in slowing down the current pandemic and preventing future diseases from reaching COVID-19 levels.

“We don’t know anything about the networks of drivers when it comes to these types of infectious disease,” Lemke told Land Line Now. “So it’s a serious threat that needs to be handled correctly. We don’t know how to do it.”

COVID-19 and the stressors of trucking

A third paper, titled “Syndemic Frameworks to Understand the Effects of COVID-19 on Commercial Driver Stress, Health, and Safety,” was published in the Journal of Transport and Health. In this article, there is a clear perspective of a former trucker.

In the article. Lemke points out that stressors of trucking have wreaked havoc on truckers for decades. To really understand the impacts of COVID-19 on truckers, those preexisting stressors should not be ignored. Supporting that claim, Lemke provides information that is all-too-familiar with former and current truckers, albeit in a formal, academic way.

In addition to macroeconomic forces related to the decline of manufacturing wages, Lemke also cites the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 as contributors to the “eroded earning over time” for truckers. The article event cites hours-of-service regulations as a factor.

“Even federal policies intended to protect roadway safety have had counterintuitive impacts that have increased (long-haul truck driver) stress,” the article states. “For example, federal hours-of-service laws create a regulatory environment where drivers are subject to the intense competitive pressures in the current trucking industry and yet are liable for HOS violations as they try to meet these demands.”

The article goes on to mention by-the-mile pay, being away from home, lack of medical services on the road and other common trucking stressors to highlight how the job can have a significant impact on a drivers health.

So how do common stressors of trucking relate to COVID-19?

For the most part, the pandemic has exacerbated those preexisting stressors. Demand for certain types of freight have been higher than ever as a result of relief efforts. However, travel restrictions, including closures of rest areas and restrictions at facilities, worsen the stressors. In addition to making preexisting stressors worse, COVID-19 has added new stressors. The most apparent addition is worrying about getting infected with the disease.

Consequently, drivers may fall ill, reducing the driver count when they are needed the most. Additionally, many more drivers may choose to leave as a result of the added stressors. Many more may choose not to enter the industry.

Trucker representation in academia and policymaking

Dr. Lemke’s former role as a trucker exhibits the importance of having actual experts involved in research and policies. His research comes from a place that can only come from experience.

Through his time as a trucker, Lemke saw firsthand the health issues within the trucking industry. He brought that knowledge to his research, knowledge that was lacking in academia.

“Driver health and safety issues have been under the radar in academia,” Lemke told Land Line Now. “People tend to study what they know and there aren’t a lot of truck drivers who are in academia. So to me, I really wanted to bring attention to the matter.”

Because of  Lemke, there are some peer-reviewed, published articles in the academia world that is specific to truckers’ health from the perspective of a former trucker. Those papers are now available for other researchers to expand on and learn from.

The same experience is much needed in government as well. In fact, many stakeholders have taken issue with those in leading roles at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and other agencies that affect trucking. The lack of actual trucking experience can be seen in a lot of the decisions being made. Ride-alongs are no substitute for experience, and some may question how much policymakers actually listen to public comments.

Land Line Now Senior Correspondent Scott Thompson contributed to this report.

Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.