Truck Driver Health Should Drive Business Decisions

Truck drivers are vital to the flow of the supply chain yet this key resource is being drained at an alarming rate.

The average life expectancy for long-haul truck drivers is 61 years. As the current truck driver workforce ages and with fewer young people choosing a career as a truck driver, it leaves the industry with a major problem. How can these key individuals be replaced? Companies are scrambling to try initiatives such as sign-on and referral bonuses in order to lessen the impending shortage, but there is a better way.

The Root of the Problem

Driving a truck for a living is a difficult job and those who choose it for a career find themselves enduring long stints away from family. They also end up not eating a balanced diet and many get little exercise while spending most of their day behind the wheel.

This combination is a contributing factor that leads to obesity, a major problem in the industry today. A recent CDC study states that 69 percent of long-haul drivers are obese compared to 31 percent of the national working population.

Obesity is a major health concern that can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, type II diabetes, and sleep apnea. These diseases are preventable in many cases. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that 88 percent of all drivers had one of these conditions. Compounding the problems resulting from poor diet and exercise is the prevalence of smoking. NIOSH reports that approximately 54 percent of drivers smoke.

Ask many drivers about body mass index (BMI) and they may tell you they don’t give it much thought. BMI looks at a person’s height and weight. While it only scratches the surface of an individual’s overall health, it can indicate obesity and is now being looked at by the industry.

An adult with a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight and someone with a BMI of 30 or higher is obese. A BMI equal to or greater than 40 would classify someone as morbidly obese.

The rate of morbid obesity in long-haul drivers, at 17 percent, is twice as high as the national working population, reports the CDC. In a study that looked at rookie drivers in their first two years on the road, drivers with a BMI higher than 35 had a 43 to 55-percent higher chance of having an accident when compared to drivers in the normal range. This indicates obesity could be a contributing factor to accidents.

Obesity is a contributing factor in the development of sleep apnea. This disorder can be related to obesity. Drivers that are at risk are required to undergo sleep tests to see if they have this disorder, and if so, they are required to use a CPAP machine while sleeping. This is an attempt to cut down on drowsy driving. A questionnaire conducted by law firm Pritzker Hageman administered at truck inspection stations in several U.S. states indicated that 28 percent of commercial drivers stated that they had fallen asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.

When looking at the current obesity epidemic among the truck driver population, it becomes clear that things need to change. The nature of the job, and the demands that the industry places on drivers, is costing companies money in addition to making our drivers sick. As drivers’ fitness level decreases and their weight increases, many yield to the demands of the industry and leave the field in search of new work. What if this trend could be reversed and drivers could attain better personal fitness levels?

Healthy Dose of Prevention

Many companies have started to put in fitness facilities at terminals. However, with the drivers constantly being on the go, many of these facilities sit unused. Unless they become part of an overall wellness program, these sites represent a waste of money.

A more effective, long-term solution is a wellness program that looks at the individual driver. Companies must make the driver’s health the priority with fitness assessments, programs that are specific to each individual’s goals, and constant monitoring. Many drivers feel unappreciated and overworked, so a financial commitment by companies that shows they care about the employee and his/her overall health will go a long way. The companies have to look at this like any other process improvement project with better driver health as the goal.

The annual turnover rate in large truckload carriers hovers around 100 percent. When you take into consideration that it costs $3,000 to $5,000 to recruit and train one driver, it is costing the industry $3 billion to $5 billion annually to keep the one million or so driver positions filled, according to a recent Forbes article.

Instead of working to find replacements for our drivers, why not spend some money to make them healthy? What if the industry could add three to five years to a driver’s career by helping them to attain a better personal level of fitness and overall health? This goal would make them more productive employees and lower driver attrition due to health issues related to obesity. In addition, a comprehensive individualized wellness program could make them safer drivers.

While healthcare costs continue to increase and companies scramble to find ways to make people more accountable for their own personal health, the approach to truck drivers must be different. We count on these individuals to deliver the things we often take for granted. If we cannot keep storeshelves stocked and gas at the pumps, then what would happen? We must help keep our driver workforce healthy, or one day the storeshelves may be bare.

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