Avian Flu: Is the trucking industry ready?

by Adam Ledlow

OTTAWA, Ont. – It’s the kind of image most North Americans might expect to see as part of some Hollywood sci-fi thriller: a terrifying and incurable disease sweeps the globe leaving a trail of sickness and death in its terrible wake.

It’s an image we picture in Third World countries, sadly shaking our heads as we watch the death tolls climb higher and higher. It’s an image we hold so far from our own lives that it seems too fantastic to even treat as a threat.

But it’s an image that may all too soon become reality for much of the planet: an image of an avian flu pandemic.

What started as an isolated incident in Hong Kong in 1997 is now slowly creeping its way from East to West, with most recent reports identifying cases of the disease as far west as Greece. With new cases springing up almost daily, most experts speculate that it won’t be a matter of if the disease will strike North America, but when.

As members of an essential industry, trucking companies will be called to the forefront in the event of such an emergency.

Food, water, fuel and medical supplies would have to be hauled in vast quantities in order to meet the demands of a nationwide disease. But how prepared are trucking companies for a pandemic?

What steps should they be taking at this early stage to ready themselves?

Ron Lennox, vice-president, trade and security, for the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), said that it’s difficult to predict with certainty when the disease will strike, but that the industry should at least be getting ready for it.

“We’ve begun to get some basic information out to the industry on what a pandemic is, what influenza is; basically background information though I can’t say that we have yet reached a stage where we have a plan set in stone,” Lennox said. “We’ve certainly gotten engaged in terms of working groups that have been established by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada. We’re engaged in discussions with Transport Canada and things like emergency powers.”

The CTA is currently giving carriers suggestions on how to develop their own business continuity plans, while also working closely with the government to find out exactly what is expected of the industry in the event of an emergency pandemic. The association is also learning about emergency powers and how they would affect the industry.

“We are taking it seriously and working our way through the process right now just like most industries.”

At this stage, it appears the virus is only being spread from animals to humans, and people in close contact with poultry at that.

“The trigger for us to become concerned is if it should ever reach the stage of human-to-human transmission,” Lennox said.

The difficulty is pinpointing when such a contraction would ever take place, if it ever takes place at all. Whether the timeline be one year or 10, Lennox says the key is being informed and prepared.

“We don’t want to press the panic button, that’s for sure, but on the other hand we want to make sure that…carriers have a sense of what this is all about and the steps that they can take to prepare themselves for it. They should be thinking about these sorts of issues because it is possible that they will have to face them at some point in the future.”

However, in the event that the pandemic should strike close to home, the trucking industry will find itself in a unique and troubling situation. The current driver shortage would have the potential to intensify greatly if many of the drivers contracted the disease. It’s a concern that the CTA has already been discussing with the Canadian government. Lennox said there are emergency powers under the federal Emergency Preparedness Act that would allow the government to direct the industry to act in a certain fashion.

“If we are truly in a dire situation, and let’s hope it never comes to that, where there are a significant number of truck drivers that are ill and unable to work and the store shelves are becoming depleted, does it make sense to have trucks running empty? Does it make sense to enforce weight restrictions? In an emergency situation, trucks hauling essential goods could perhaps carry more weight than they would under normal circumstances. Those are the sorts of regulatory things that the government is thinking about … that might make sense in a true emergency situation.”

As Lennox said before, it is not desirable for the industry – or the country at large – to be going into panic mode at the thought of an imminent pandemic. Instead, simply making sure all staff and drivers are informed about the disease and what it might mean for the industry should be the important first step.

“I think we’re at the stage where people should be educating themselves about what a pandemic is, what the simple things that they can do to reduce the possibility of being affected by a pandemic and starting to think about business continuity plans,” Lennox said.

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