WINDSOR, CT. The average lifespan for Americans is 78 years old. For long-haul commercial truck drivers, it’s 61.
That statistic comes from Erin Mabry, a senior research associate at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety. Mabry was a speaker at Travelers’ Third Annual Safety Symposium. This year’s event focused on driver health and wellness and its correlation with vehicle safety.
Trucking is one of the highest risk occupations, with high rates of obesity – more than 90% of industry drivers are obese or overweight, Mabry said. Drivers also have irregular sleep patterns; long, sedentary hours behind the wheel; a lot of irregular shiftwork; and poor nutrition and eating habits due to lack of access to healthy food on the roads, according to Mabry.
Adam Seidner, the global medical director for Travelers, said various medical factors contribute to operating a vehicle safely. Obesity, he said, is an indicator of a host of other health problems. And if a person isn’t sleeping properly, his or her insulin levels start changing and cause the body to be resistant to the insulin, which in turn causes the body to gain weight, he said.
Seidner advised that when fleets begin embracing health programs, most think it’s only about diet and exercise. But there’s more to it than that, he explained.
Other than diet and exercise, fleet owners and managers should consider what drugs, like caffeine, could be doing to their drivers. Seidner explained that at the beginning of the curb with caffeine, people do perform better at first, before fading over time.
“[Caffeine] has an impact long-term – it decreases sleep over time,” he said, adding that after people come down from caffeine, they can’t really regain that initial ability to be receptive.
Alcohol is another problem. Over time, Seidner explained, alcohol depresses the central nervous system and has a negative impact on sleep, causing people to wake up often in the middle of their sleep or wake up tired. The same goes for many prescription drugs, he said.
And all those factors could lead to risky driving behavior.
“Some make you more tired and it impacts your attention, perception and motor skills,” Seidner added.
Seidner suggested that fleets take the time to understand the health of their employees – by paying attention to their drivers’ cognitive behaviors, perceptions, attention, memory, and health conditions such as sleep apnea, diabetes, fatigue, and other risk factors that could cause unsafe behavior.
“You’ve got to take ownership of your employees,” he said. “You need to understand the health portfolio of your population and then put in place any of the interventions that will improve that health. That’s where the health promotion and the other health and wellness programs are put into place.”
When putting those programs into place, Mabry mentioned a sleep apnea study she worked on with Schneider. The trucking company screened, tested and treated its drivers for sleep apnea.
After drivers were treated, the carrier saw a reduction in medical costs and a reduction in preventable crashes. Schneider also noticed that drivers who were treated for sleep apnea ended up staying with the company longer, Mabry said.
“They really cared that their company took the initiative to test and treat them and they decided to stay with the company longer,” she said. “They didn’t know how good they were supposed to feel.”
Mabry explained that she is working on another health and wellness case study with Schneider in which they are trying to address risk factors ahead of time. This program, she explained, is voluntary and incentive based.
The program targets wellness coaching, offers health behaviors and chronic disease prevention/management, ergonomic and injury prevention services, puts on-site clinics and occupational therapy and health screens at terminals, offers nutrition and exercise to employees, and implements education and counseling.
Drivers who were hesitant to participate in the health assessment screen were sent kits and were conveniently able to rate the conditions they had and were at risk for. An added bonus: Participants were given insurance benefits as an incentive.
But not all drivers Mabry has worked with during her time at Virginia Tech have felt that encouraged by their employer – or the industry, for that matter.
“I talked to many drivers about all these things that impact their health and the biggest thing by far is the nutrition issues they face,” Mabry said. “They just don’t have access to and they’re not supported by their employer to have the in-cab food cooking and storage that they need. Drivers who are able to make and sustain those changes have made health their priority, and they say, ‘The industry doesn’t support this, but I support myself.’”
“It’s possible, but it’s disheartening to hear truckers say the industry doesn’t support their healthy behaviors,” she added.