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Managing risk in a pandemic

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This feature originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of Fleet News. Read the article in the digital issue of the magazine.


The Covid-19 pandemic has turned many aspects of fleet management on its head, but the need to manage risk is not one of them.

“The duty of care which organisations hold towards drivers and other road users, remains unchanged,” says Simon Turner, campaign manager for Driving for Better Business (DfBB).

“All employers have a responsibility to protect the health of their employees, including their mental health and well-being.”

However, the so-called ‘new normal’ does pose some very real challenges for organisations to satisfy their duty of care obligations when it comes to business travel, says Michael Douglas, product manager at driver risk management and training company TTC Group.

“Creating awareness of these new challenges is the first step in the proactive management of them,” he adds.

“With the mass adoption of working from home in the wake of the pandemic and concerns drivers are becoming or have become deconditioned to daily driving, we urge fleet decision-makers to remain tuned-in to the laws surrounding driving for work.

“Organisations have got to take a pragmatic approach by implementing processes, providing support and creating responsible cultures from individual drivers through to senior management level personnel.

“For some fleets, new processes introduced to ensure employees’ fitness to drive – such as clearly defined two-way channels of communication that empower drivers to express any health or well-being concerns they might have – are expected to become even more important and integral elements of their future risk management policies.”

One obvious impact the lockdown measures for the pandemic have had is that they have changed the way fleet decision-makers can manage risk as traditional in-person training, meetings and toolbox talks are, in many cases, no longer possible or practical.

This may be due to social distancing rules or because employees are working from home, but Mark Roberts, founder and chief executive of Lightfoot, says many fleets are struggling to manage the safety of their drivers and associated risk as a result.

“Engagement is proving to be a major issue as fewer drivers come into contact with fleet managers,” he says.

However, Martin Evans, managing director at fleet management software company Jaama, takes an opposing view.

“The old proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ really reflects what is happening now during the pandemic,” he says.

“The world is changing very rapidly and fleet decision-makers are quickly figuring out what they need to do in order to mitigate any unnecessary costs, get through more work with a reduced headcount, potentially find more vehicles dependent on the nature of their business and, most importantly, keep their drivers safe.

“Fleet managers are having to embrace technologies that enable them to have online meetings, operate remotely such as through web-based fleet systems and interact with drivers via such mediums as driver apps.”

This means many fleet decision-makers have had to put aside their reservations of digital risk management, with the pandemic acting as a “forced pilot” for them, adds Beverley Wise, sales director UK & Ireland for Webfleet Solutions.

“Technologies hold the key to successful remote working and can help mitigate the impact of the temporary eradication of face-to-face meetings and in-person interactions,” she says.

Fleet managers are able to use phone, text, email or scheduled conference calls to communicate with drivers on a regular basis, while the access to the core data that underpins the measurement and benchmarking of wider fleet safety, such as licence information, service schedule records and collision management data, has remained largely unaffected since the onset of the pandemic.

Many organisations already used online risk tools and training pre-pandemic, and Richard Hipkiss, managing director of Fleet Operations, has seen virtual classroom technologies – digital technologies that allow trainers and drivers to connect online in real-time – being deployed more frequently for driver training courses.

“Despite the limitations of these virtual classrooms, they have still enabled important face-to-face interactions,” he says.

“Other online driver training tools have also long proven their worth in allowing content to remain consistent and to be tailored according to
individual needs.

“In some cases, in-built digital analytics can help measure driver engagement, signposting any necessary management interventions.”

Use of other technologies can also help a fleet decision-maker manage risk remotely. Telematics can provide information on areas such as driver behaviour, while Wise says it can also be used for mileage capture.

Processes which were not previously performed electronically can be digitalised such as defect reports with Jaama, for example, experiencing a lot of interest in its driver app and portals.

“These enable drivers to, essentially, self-service and send information electronically such as daily check, defect and accident information,” says Evans.

FleetCheck, too, has seen usage of its risk management and safety check app soar throughout 2020.

At the start of the year, the app had been used two million times by fleet drivers since its launch in 2017. By October, this had risen to eight million.

“There has been a general increase in awareness of this kind of digital safety check product in the market, both among car and commercial vehicle fleets, and we have been well-placed to take advantage of the trend, even through the coronavirus situation,” says Peter Golding, managing director at FleetCheck.

“In fact, there is some evidence that safety inspections have become more of a hot topic over the past few months.

“On one hand, we’ve had some LCV fleets working around the clock on frontline services, so safety has been a concern there.

“Then on the other, we’ve had some vehicles hardly being used during lockdown, which brings its own safety issues.”

While the best tech for each fleet will inevitably vary according to their size, purpose and budget, there is consensus in the fleet industry that its uptake will only gain momentum in the coming months.

“The accelerated adoption of digital systems across all areas of business over recent months as we adapt to the ‘new normal’ should ultimately encourage fleets to re-evaluate the opportunities that tech solutions present,” says Hipkiss.

“There are a host of different ways that fleet managers can enhance and stream-line their risk management strategies and programmes (as mentioned previously), and that is what we are now witnessing.”


Mental health and well-being

The mental health and well-being of drivers has become an increasing focus in recent years and Covid-19 has drawn this into sharper focus.

“During the pandemic, it is common for people to feel shocked, numb, or unable to accept what has happened,” says Lisa Dorn, research director at DriverMetrics.

“Be aware that people react differently and take different amounts of time to come to terms with what has happened.

“Research has highlighted the link between driver stress and unsafe driving behaviours showing that high levels of anxiety are associated with poor road positioning and driver errors, whereas aggression as a response to stress is correlated with greater speed and road traffic violations.”

Beverley Wise, of Webfleet Solutions, adds: “The emotional well-being of workers should be on a par with other health and safety considerations, particularly at this time of considerable social and economic uncertainty.”

Identifying this stress as early as possible should be an integral part of managing risk among business drivers, she says, particularly given the pressures they face such as tight delivery windows and unexpected congestion.

Fleet decision-makers should also be aware of the potential feeling of isolation for drivers.

“Commercial vehicle drivers are used to a degree of isolation as many travel alone,” says Simon Turner of DfBB.

“But social distancing has amplified those feelings. There will be a relaxing of these rules, but some levels will need to be maintained and social interaction will be limited to a degree.

“Many of those who drive company cars, such as sales teams, may still be working from home for some time as firms look to reduce their employees’ potential exposure to the virus, so the human interaction that many of them thrive on will be missing.”

Fatigue management procedures should be both thorough and thoughtful, while building a strong culture around openness and communication can encourage drivers to speak up when they are feeling stress and anxiety, he adds.

“Indeed, drivers who are returning to work after a period of furlough may need particular support in terms of well-being, especially if they are returning to a workplace which looks very different to before,” says Turner.

Dorn adds it is important to make sure drivers know they matter and there is a range of measures fleets can use to help their mental well-being. These include:

Ensuring a two-way communication process to show fleet managers believe in a driver’s ability to create change if necessary.

Targeting drivers who need extra support.

Ensuring adequate personal protection and following social distancing guidelines in the workplace to reduce fears and anxieties.

Avoiding putting too much pressure on drivers and allowing them to adopt a pace that they feel comfortable with. Increasing workloads when drivers are already highly stressed may be counterproductive. It may take a little while to return to previous levels of production.

Briefing their workforce on the expected workload within the company so they can predict when demands may be higher than usual and prepare themselves psychologically.


Increased grey fleet risk

The increase in working from home during the Covid-19 crisis is believed to have led to a rise in the number of employees using their own vehicles for work journeys.

This trend is set to continue beyond the pandemic. A survey by BT Skills for Tomorrow and Small Business Britain suggests 37% of the UK’s small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) are planning for less face-to-face contact and around a quarter expect working from home to continue – so it is vital that organisations have comprehensive grey fleet policies.

Michael Douglas, of TTC Group, says: “Working from home gives employees a new normal place of work and, therefore, any car journey, in relation to business, will fall under the driving for work banner.

“Driving to meet colleagues or popping to the local shop for stationery or a post office drop-off all come under this umbrella.

“Another challenge presents itself with any regular need to visit an employer’s registered office and, as more people escape to the country, this could potentially involve a round-trip of hundreds of miles. 

“For many employees, this journey to the office now falls under the banner of a business journey whereby the employer has caused or permitted that travel by car.”

His sentiment is echoed by Paul Hollick, chair of the Association of Fleet Professionals (AFP), who adds: “Any employees who work from home for the majority of time, but sometimes visit the office using their own vehicles have, strictly speaking, all become grey fleet – and should be subject to all the usual grey fleet management practices.”

These include setting out the minimum vehicle standards that employee-owned cars must meet in areas such as minimum Euro NCAP safety ratings, vehicle age, CO2 emissions, required safety features and essential breakdown cover.

A grey fleet policy should also state that the employee is responsible for ensuring their vehicle complies with laws on roadworthiness, is being serviced in line with manufacturer guidelines, has the appropriate level of insurance, and that the employer will require paperwork to prove this.

Drivers should also provide evidence of a valid driving licence.


Returning to work

When either a driver who has been furloughed or a vehicle which has not been used for a while returns to action, it is important a fleet decision-maker ensures they are both roadworthy.

“Furloughed drivers may well have spent weeks or months not getting behind the wheel at all, even if they have been driving their own car,” says Simon Turner, of DfBB.

“Drivers of commercial vehicles could quite easily have suffered what we call ‘skill fade’ and require a little time to get back into the swing of things.

“Equally, car drivers will be going back on the roads with much higher levels of traffic than we have grown used to. Fleet managers should think carefully about this and consider how best to check their drivers remain appropriately skilled and confident to undertake their duties.”

This could mean they need safety refresher courses, while others many require dedicated support with their mental well-being, with stress and anxiety exacerbating the potential safety risks they face behind the wheel, says Richard Hipkiss, of Fleet Operations.

“For some fleets, new processes introduced to ensure employees’ fitness to drive – such as clearly defined two-way channels of communication that empower drivers to express any health or wellbeing concerns they might have – will become important and integral elements of their future risk management policies,” he adds.

“Furthermore, a renewed focus has been given to keeping vehicles in roadworthy condition, particularly in light of the DVSA’s six-month MOT extension and the large number of vehicles that have been ‘mothballed’ or left ‘parked up’ as a consequence of fleets scaling back their operational activities.

“Although many fleet decision-makers have continued to MOT their vehicles, ensuring that vehicle inspections are regularly carried out has become all the more critical for those that have not done so.”


Covid-19 measures

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a health and safety spotlight on cleanliness practices, the disinfecting of vehicle interiors, limiting of vehicle occupancy and social distancing procedures for field workers.

Public Health England (PHE) has approved a guidance note, issued by the Department for Transport (https://tinyurl.com/y9xhxtmj) on best practices to ensure vehicle cabins are kept clean and sanitised using regular methods.

“It stresses that the frequency of cleaning protocols needs to be increased – especially if a vehicle has a high utilisation level (in which case it should be doubled) – and take place when crews change over,” says the policy team at Logistics UK.

“All hard surfaces that are touched often, for example door handles and steering wheels, should be cleaned frequently.”

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