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June 7, 2022Episode 34. When the Workplace Is Behind the Wheel: Improving occupational safety for truckers (and the rest of us).
FEATURING: Eva Shipp
Close to half of all workplace deaths result from transportation incidents, including crashes that involve large trucks. Drivers of those trucks are at higher risk than workers in other jobs. And to the degree that we share road space with truckers, the risk extends to the rest of us, too. Evolving policies resulting from new research could help to change that.
About Our Guest
Eva Shipp is an injury epidemiologist, research scientist, and program manager in TTI’s Center for Transportation Safety. With more than twenty years of experience in public health research (including injury prevention and novel approaches to tracking injuries), she’s conducted research for the Federal Motor Carrier Association, Texas Department of Transportation, the Behavioral Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Program, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, among other sponsors.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello, and welcome. This is Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. People in jobs that involve driving large trucks are at a higher risk than workers in other occupations. That’s a reality that’s well understood by our guest for this episode. Eva Shipp is a senior research scientist at TTI and an epidemiologist. She studies, among other things, occupational safety for those whose jobs require a lot of driving. One group that comes to mind is long-haul truckers. We’re delighted to welcome her to this installment of Thinking Transportation. Eva, thank you for joining us.
Eva Shipp (guest) (01:06):
Thank you so much, Bernie, for having me.
Bernie Fette (01:09):
I remember not long ago, we were having a conversation about this topic when, when we were preparing for this episode. And I recall you saying something like “if you drive to make a living, there’s a greater chance that you could die that way, too.” I’m paraphrasing a little bit, but if you recall that part of our conversation, could you start there and just maybe elaborate on that for just a minute?
Eva Shipp (01:33):
Sure. So one of the reasons I’m so interested in occupational health and safety of folks in transportation is because based on data from the census of fatal occupational injuries in the United States, one of the top ways people die on the job is through a transportation-related injury or crash. And this is definitely preventable. That’s why I’m so interested in working in this space.
Bernie Fette (01:59):
Well, and it sounds like you’re not the only person that’s interested in it. It seems like there’s a really sudden interest in truck driver safety and safety training, maybe a combination of older drivers leaving this line of work, supply chain issues. What are the reasons behind this sudden interest, do you think?
Eva Shipp (02:18):
Right. So I think we’ve known kind of bubbling underneath the surface for a while that the truck driver workforce is aging. And at the same time, you know, truck drivers, it’s kind of a sedentary job. So this leads to more chronic disease issues. Getting healthy food on the road can be kind of tricky, proper sleep patterns and whatnot. And so this also kind of puts extra pressure on the size of the workforce.
Bernie Fette (02:43):
That’s right, because we get advice from occupational health people, for those of us who work in offices that we need to get up from our workstations from time to time and just move about for a couple of minutes, just to keep our backs healthy and things like that. That would seem to be kind of tough to do in the trucking industry.
Eva Shipp (03:02):
Exactly. And there’s the vibrations of the truck can lead to, um, you know, different ergonomic issues. And so it’s, there’s a lot of things that truck drivers contend with and they certainly can’t be stopping every 30 minutes for a stretch break.
Bernie Fette (03:15):
So what kind of a shortage are we facing that you’re talking about?
Eva Shipp (03:18):
The American trucking association estimated we’re, we’re looking at a shortage of about 80,000 or so drivers. And then we saw, and everyone’s fully aware of COVID we’re still not entirely over the COVID-19 pandemic. And I think when we saw all the different supply chain issues come about because of the pandemic, it forced society, it forced folks working in this space as a whole to really acknowledge the importance that truck drivers are to our economy. And also for our ability to have resources that we need simply for daily life activities. I mean, we had the huge rush on toilet paper, which is kind of astonishing. I certainly never thought in my lifetime I would be facing a toilet paper shortage.
Bernie Fette (04:03):
Eva Shipp (04:03):
And being able to get even food supplies, personal protective equipment, like masks to protect ourselves and cleaning supplies and whatnot. So the COVID-19 pandemic certainly forced us to acknowledge more the truck driver shortage and the important role that these workers play in our economy.
Bernie Fette (04:23):
So you mentioned drivers. Obviously they’re arguably at the center of this storm. Who else? what other groups are, are concerned with, with what’s happening here?
Eva Shipp (04:34):
For sure the fleet owners and operators and employers of those truck drivers; they’re definitely affected by this issue and the shortage and the health of their workforce and, and maintaining a robust workforce. For sure the regulatory agencies like FMCSA or the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, they’re in charge with different rule making activities, state departments of transportation, law enforcement, first responders like EMS that are responding to crashes.
Bernie Fette (05:07):
And insurance carriers.
Eva Shipp (05:09):
Insurance carriers, as well as safety advocates, trainers.
Bernie Fette (05:15):
And on that topic, you just mentioned the safety and training. To help fill that void, that shortage, I understand that one of the things that the industry is doing is trying to attract younger drivers. And the legislation now allows younger drivers behind the wheel of big freight trucks. At the same time, we know — as an epidemiologist, you know — that that’s the group that 18 to 25 year old group that we’re talking about is the most crash prone, high risk group of drivers on the road. So how do we square those two issues? We’re trying to fill a void, but we’re trying to fill it with drivers who fall into the high risk category. Is that a problem?
Eva Shipp (05:59):
Definitely a controversial topic. So this year FMCSA came out with a new rule under the safe driver apprenticeship pilot program, which I think you were referring to, where it’s now legal for folks as young as 18 to drive large truck tractors across state lines. And this is a pretty considerable change. And it certainly made sense in terms of helping to fill the truck driver shortage, right? But at the same time, like you mentioned, these are some of our riskiest drivers.
Bernie Fette (06:36):
Eva Shipp (06:36):
There’s parts of the brain that don’t fully develop until you’re in your mid-twenties. And those parts are responsible for making smart choices or bad choices, right? So your safety advocates are saying, hey, wait a minute, can’t we do something else? Aren’t there other things that we can be doing to address this issue?
Bernie Fette (06:58):
And that’s why the, the program we’re talking about of attracting those younger drivers and training them is very much in a pilot phase, right? We’re gonna see how this works for a few years?
Eva Shipp (07:09):
That’s correct. And I, I, for one, I’m very curious, it could be that the intensive oversight and training it works and it’s effective for this age group, but it could also be that it, it’s not the best approach.
Bernie Fette (07:24):
Okay. Now that you’ve mentioned training again, let’s, let’s get into that a little bit and more specific to the, the training related work that you and your colleagues have been doing. Can you tell us what’s been happening there for you?
Eva Shipp (07:36):
Sure. So over the last couple of years, you know, we TTI ,my group. We had a project funded through BTS C R P, um, or the Behavioral Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Program. And this project was called the employer-based driver safety program project. And through this, we developed TTI an online interactive tool to provide employers and other stakeholders, not just employers, with accessible and flexible ways of planning, implementing, and evaluating traffic safety programs. This tool is based on research that we’ve conducted as part of the project. And it incorporates state of the practice employer experiences and safety innovations that employers have come up with. And as well as getting the word out about behavioral change theory and how programs that are rooted in a behavioral change theory can be more effective than kind of a shotgun blast approach to employer-provided safety programs. And then also in addition to that, helping employers to evaluate efforts and look at is what they are doing effective. And if it’s not effective, why and how can they tailor their programs to address those gaps?
Bernie Fette (08:55):
Because this isn’t necessarily about an absence of training programs. It’s more of an absence of a means to measure whether or not those programs are working?
Eva Shipp (09:06):
Right. So for sure employers do — especially those that are more interested in developing a safety culture in their organization — they have safety programs and many of them are very effective. But oftentimes they don’t evaluate their efforts. They could be even more effective because they’re not rooted in that theory of behavioral change that people in industrial and organizational psychology, you know, in academia have been researching for a while, but now’s a good time for us to translate that type of knowledge and evidence into practice at the employer level.
Bernie Fette (09:46):
Okay. It sounds like you were about to go there, but let me make sure that I ask you to talk a little bit about behavioral change theory in a way that people like me without a background in that area can understand, because I’ve heard you mention that phrase a couple of times, and it sounds like a bit of a contrast to what the safety training universe has looked like up to now.
Eva Shipp (10:12):
Yeah, there’s a variety of theories that can be applicable to employer-based driver safety programs. And each of them tackles the issue from a slightly different perspective. Such as there’s something called the diffusion of innovations or the theory of planned behavior. And it depends on the actual problem that the drivers are experiencing or the type of driver they are that dictates maybe perhaps what’s the most applicable theory. And that theory helps us tease out what are the most perhaps best points, intervention along the trajectory of the problem.
Bernie Fette (10:51):
Eva Shipp (10:52):
And then tailoring your safety programs to address those issues.
Bernie Fette (10:58):
I’m curious about the main contrast between what you’re doing now in this area and what has come before.
Eva Shipp (11:08):
You know, more so now than ever, we’re looking at the best way to use our resources, our time, our money, our staff. And, you know, in academia, they’ve been knowing that if you root something in a behavioral theory of change, it can be a better use of resources cuz your program will probably be more effective and have a bigger impact. But honestly, behavioral change theories are complicated and complex, you know, as we’re talking about it now to understand, right, you know. The average person is not gonna pick up a book or the average employer on behavioral change theories and immediately know what to do with them.
Bernie Fette (11:50):
Exactly. And that’s, that’s why I’m wondering about the contrast between what’s come before and what you’re trying to do now. What are the most essential elements for a training coordinator or a fleet owner to understand about this?
Eva Shipp (12:03):
And that’s the whole reason that we built the tool. It was to, to distill this information down into something that’s more digestible and accessible to your average employer, fleet operator safety manager.
Bernie Fette (12:15):
Eva Shipp (12:15):
And so we on the website tool gave primers on what are behavioral change theories, how to use them to build a program and then how to use tried-and-true techniques for evaluation to bring it full circle. So you you’re building your program built on a theory, you implement it. How do we evaluate it during the program and after the program to identify where we’ve been effective and parts of the program that need to maybe change. And I think that what’s new is trying to get the word out about how this approach can make your programs more effective and make better use of resources for targeted high-impact outcomes.
Bernie Fette (13:01):
Okay, Eva, if I understand our earlier conversation correctly, this is about more than just traditional semi truck drivers, because we’ve also got people who drive for a living in the oil and gas industry, the milk, agriculture, commodity drivers, delivery, operations and transit operators, too. To what degree does what you’re doing apply to them as well.
Eva Shipp (13:23):
I really think it applies to anybody who’s driving for their job, whether it be a big truck tractor or some other box truck or some other vehicle. It definitely crosses all industries and types of commodities. Some safety issues are the same, no matter what we’re hauling or what we’re doing, but some truck drivers have very specific safety issues that are dependent on what are they hauling. So for example, like a fuel tanker driver, maybe traveling from the refineries or tank farms to the filling station. Like we’ve seen them when we’re getting, you know, filling our own vehicles with gas requires driving a huge vehicle with cargo that’s unstable. It’s liquid. So it could be sloshing around in the tanker and making, driving a, a large vehicle, a little trickier. And then they’re moving in dense traffic and urban spaces. And not to mention the fact that they’re hauling a volatile or hazardous material on top of all that. So, you know, a one-size-fits-all type of safety program may not, uh, you know, be adequate in these types of situations or types of drivers. And so this is definitely another situation that helps us see that using this behavioral change theory approach is a flexible approach and can be used to even tailor programs and maximize their impact.
Bernie Fette (14:45):
And maximize their impact in the context of —
Eva Shipp (14:49):
Reducing crash risk —
Bernie Fette (14:50):
— reducing crash risk, but also in the context of making a profit, right? Because that’s ultimately what these companies are in the business to do.
Eva Shipp (15:00):
Absolutely, Bernie. Like, you know, I come from a background of entrepreneurs and <laugh> people where the bottom line meant something. So on one side I’m super interested in safety and developing safer roadways. And the other side, I have this inherent understanding of what it’s like to be the employer and be worried about that bottom line.
Bernie Fette (15:22):
Yeah, because you know, that employer-provided safety programs require an investment. They require an investment that we are saying will pay off. It’s not wise to cut corners in an effort to maximize profits because that’s something that can have bad repercussions down the line. Safety implications versus economic implications. What’s the best way to strike that balance?
Eva Shipp (15:46):
People may not realize that, um, based on some research under FMCSA, the cost of a truck tractor crash that results in a fatality is upwards of $7 million. And so in addition to fatal injuries like this, there’s also non-fatal injuries that can have long-standing health issues. They can take the driver out of the workforce as well, not to mention other roadway users. So I think like because crashes are somewhat random events, making that initial investment can be kind of hard for some employers and some organizations, but we’re seeing, you know, I think more and more employers and others are showing the economic value of safety that safety pays off. There’s a colleague of ours who was the former president of Jetco Delivery, which is a company that provides trucking and freight services in the Gulf Coast area. And he demonstrated the economic benefit of instilling a strong safety culture in a trucking company, specifically. His name is Brian Falco, and he actually documented his experience. And this story in a book titled Driving to Perfection, Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture. And I think other employers and other CEOs and presidents are, are seeing this impact and thinking this is something of value and worth doing. And I think folks in the transit industry have long seen the value of safety in terms of public transit and busing.
Bernie Fette (17:16):
Do you think that that’s more true for transit drivers and operators than it is maybe for those who move freight instead of people?
Eva Shipp (17:25):
In my opinion, I, I think that the transit operators, the transit agencies were early adopters to this concept. Of safety pays. And maybe it is because they were responsible or are responsible for moving people instead of things.
Bernie Fette (17:42):
Which would create different liability considerations. I was just wondering if that had anything to do with the distinction.
Eva Shipp (17:48):
I think it did. We showed in our BTSCRP project, we learned a lot from those case studies with transit agencies. One of the things we also tried to do with the website tool is help other types of employers take away innovations and safety practices from other industries like transit and, and apply them to their situation.
Bernie Fette (18:11):
So you really are trying to get at a best practices approach.
Eva Shipp (18:15):
Absolutely. You know, I come from a public health background. Where we have to work across disciplines to be effective. And I think that framework could definitely be brought over into this context; employers learning from employers across industries.
Bernie Fette (18:32):
Okay. You clearly have been pretty busy. What are the main takeaways? What do you hope that people who are listening to this, that they’ll walk away with and not forget?
Eva Shipp (18:41):
One of my big ones is acknowledging the importance of truck drivers and that we have a shortage. We need to do what we can do to maintain their health and safety on and off the roadway. We need to be attracting new individuals into this workforce. You know, women far less than 10 percent of the truck driver population are females. So they’re definitely to me an untapped resource. And perhaps we need to be thinking outside the box about how to make scheduling and other aspects of truck driving different to attract women and other potentially very safe drivers. Lowering the legal age to drive the large trucks across state lines may be beneficial. It may not, but I think that’s only one way of solving the problem or addressing it. And it can have those unintended consequences. There was just one other thing. And I think I just wanna end with truck safety is every driver’s business. You know, employer safety culture fosters safe truck drivers, but other drivers also have a responsibility to share the road safely around them. And so if we really want to achieve a goal of zero fatalities, it’s gonna take efforts of all roadway users.
Bernie Fette (20:03):
I’m really glad that you mentioned that because we touched on it very briefly earlier in the conversation, but this is about road safety for more people than just those whose safety programs you’re specifically working on, those truck drivers. This is about the safety of everybody else who shares the road with those truck drivers.
Eva Shipp (20:23):
Yeah. So a lot of crashes that involve trucks are not necessarily the fault of the truck driver.
Bernie Fette (20:30):
Very important. Yeah.
Eva Shipp (20:31):
There are many crashes where another driver rear-ends a truck, for example, because they’re distracted, they’re on their phones. And sometimes it’s hard to judge the distance between the back of a flat truck and your own vehicle. And so it just highlights that trucks are big. And if you are hit by a truck, it may be more likely cuz of the physics to cause a severe injury. That means that we all need to play a role in ensuring the safety of our roadways.
Bernie Fette (21:03):
Clearly a case of shared responsibility.
Eva Shipp (21:07):
Bernie Fette (21:09):
Last question. What is it that gets you to work every day? What really motivates you?
Eva Shipp (21:17):
Knowing that I have a skill set that can be used to help prevent crashes. These events are preventable, and I know that what I’m doing can help accomplish this and improve the lives of all roadway users in Texas. You know, even though I specialize in occupational health and safety in many ways, I’m concerned with saving lives and keeping people from getting severely injured. And that’s what really motivates me in the morning.
Bernie Fette (21:51):
Well, thanks for what you’re doing. Eva Shipp — epidemiologist and senior research scientist at TTI. Thank you, Eva. This has been enlightening and really fun to talk about. Thank you for sharing.
Eva Shipp (22:04):
Thank you so much, Bernie, for your time.
Bernie Fette (22:08):
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, if you drive for a living, there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll die that way, too. That’s because nearly half of all workplace deaths result from vehicle crashes, including those that involve large trucks. Drivers of those trucks are at higher risk than workers in other jobs. And because we share road space with them, the rest of us are at greater risk as well. But with new methods based in behavioral psychology, advancements in safety training promise to reduce that danger. Thanks for listening. We hope that you’ll check in with us again next time for a conversation with Brianne Glover, a TTI research scientist who tracks a vast array of economic indicators — from the price of crude oil to airline passenger counts — to better inform the way that we fund our transportation systems. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.