New attention on trucker wellness

July 16th, 2007 by Julie Ferguson

Truckers are too fat, they smoke too much, they don’t sleep well and many have such big bellies they can’t even fasten the buckle on their seat belt. That’s according to a recent Associated Press story by Emily Fredrix, who points out that truck drivers account for 15% of the nation’s work-related deaths, and poor health is often a contributing factor:

“As many as half of drivers are regular smokers, compared to about one-fifth of all Americans. Many truckers are obese, and only about one in 10 get regular aerobic exercise … Sleep apnea, which is linked to obesity, is rampant too. An industry study a few years ago found 28 percent of drivers had it; that compares with about 4 percent in the general population who have the disorder.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is increasingly concerned about the health and wellness of the nation’s trucker drivers – particularly those who drive large trucks. Today, health conditions like severe high blood pressure or severe heart conditions can be a bar to obtaining commercial driving licenses. FMCSA is now considering tightening its rules to encompass other health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
It’s no surprise that regulators would be looking at this issue. Both on the job and off, truck-related crashes take a high toll. In 2005, 5,212 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks, more than 12% of all traffic fatalities. Of these, 78 percent were occupants of another vehicle, 15 percent were large truck occupants, and 9 percent were non-occupants. The annual death toll from truck-related crashes is the equivalent of 52 major airline crashes every year, one crash every week resulting in 95 deaths. (Source: Truck Safety Coalition).
A May 2007 circular – The Domain of Truck & Bus Safety Research – cites a 1990 National Transportation Safety Board Study which described crashes fatal to drivers of heavy trucks:

” … 19 of 185 fatally injured truck drivers (10%) in the core sample studied had such severe health problems that NTSB pinpointed health as a major factor in, or the probable cause of, the crashes studied. Seventeen of those 19 crashes (89%) involved a form of cardiac incident at the time of the accident, e.g., sudden incapacitation of the driver due to an acute heart problem. NTSB said that percentage might be a conservative estimate because information in other accident reports indicated possible cardiac problems that were not confirmed because autopsies had not been conducted.”

According to the Large Truck Crash Causation Study 2006 report, which analyzed multi-year data of a large number of crashes involving trucks to determine cause, 88% of the critical reasons for accidents were assigned to drivers as opposed to vehicle failure, environment or other reasons. Critical reasons for driver-related crashes were further analyzed, and 15.6% fell into the category of “non-performance” issues – such as the driver being asleep, disabled by heart attack or seizure, or other disabled by some other physical impairment.
Voluntary wellness initiatives
Many employers are taking health issues seriously. Fredrix’ article explores ways that some employers are implementing a variety of work-based wellness initiatives aimed at improving health, such as paying for screenings for sleep apnea, high blood pressure and cholesterol and offering weight loss and nutrition programs. Such programs can have a very favorable cost-benefit ratio, such as the drop in workers compensation claims and the 75-80% reduction in lost work days experienced by Con-way Freight of Ann Arbor, Mich., after implementing trial wellness programs. Other experts point to a $3.14 return for every $1.00 invested in wellness programs.
Additional Resources
U.S. Department or Transportation – Analysis & Information Online
National Large truck Crash Facts – view national data, or click map for your state’s data
OSHA Trucking Industry Safety and health