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Poor health drives trucker injuries

According to the large Truck Crash Causation Study 2006 report, which analyzes multi-year data of a large number of crashes involving trucks, 88% of the critical reasons for accidents are attributed to drivers as opposed to vehicle failure, weather and other conditions. And of that number, 15% fell into the category of “non-performance” issues such as drivers falling asleep, having a heart attack, or being disabled by some other physical impairment.

Why the high number of “non-performance” incidents? According to a recent Associated Press story by Emily Fredrix, the answer is quite simple—truckers are too fat, eat badly, don’t exercise regularly, smoke too much and don’t get enough sleep. The result: truck drivers account for 15% of the nation’s work-related deaths, and she cites poor health as a major factor.

"As many as half of drivers are regular smokers, compared to about one-fifth of all Americans,” writes Fredrix. “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% of drivers had it; that compares with about 4% in the general population who have the disorder."

Along with being a danger on the road, many truckers have become a danger to themselves. According to a report by OSHA, strains, sprains and various other muscular-skeletal injuries make up 50% of all common trucker injuries, ranging from off-loading cargo to the simple act of stepping in and out of the cab.

Exacerbating the problem are companies that lack a program for injured drivers to receive proper medical treatment from an experienced occupational medicine professional. Also absent is a well-thought-out return-to-work or modified duty plan.

According to one expert’s report, only one out of every three back injuries is receiving proper medical treatment. Treatment is being administered differently in various parts of the country, instead of a national observance of the evidenced-based guidelines as set forth by the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine or others. With proper treatment of muscular-skeletal injuries not only does the driver benefit but also the employers, who can ill afford to lose experienced workers.

More than any other industry, the trucking industry, because of the physical unfitness of its employees, has an adverse impact on Workers’ Compensation costs. The result is more truckers going out on medical leave, or leaving the industry early due to their injuries. This doesn’t bode well for an industry that has few young people waiting in the wings.

Ultimately, the burden falls on the employer to be more pro-active in taking part in the wellness of their drivers, to make sure they get proper medical treatment and to help keep their drivers in shape. To their credit, many employers are taking the initiative and implementing work-based wellness programs that include screenings for such issues as sleep apnea, high-cholesterol and high-blood pressure monitoring, and weight-loss programs. According to one survey, the result has been a very favorable ROI resulting in a drop in Workers’ Compensation claims.

The results often speak for themselves. Con-Way Freight of Ann Arbor, Michigan experienced a 75-80% reduction in lost workdays after it implemented a wellness program. Other experts cite a $3.14 return for every $1.00 invested in a well-executed wellness program.

There can be no denying that the trucking industry keeps the nation moving. This can never be overlooked, nor should it be. But when drivers are out for an extended medical leave and can’t fulfill their duties because they fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident, or are injured in a crash because they can’t get the seat belt around their middle or have a stroke because of one too many fast-food stops, then no one wins. Not the customer, not the employer, and certainly not the driver.

Being cognizant of the physical health of the trucker should be of major importance to every employer. We can’t always control the danger that’s outside the cab, but with the proper medical strategy in place to assist the driver in maintaining good health and keeping him on the job, we can control that potential danger prevalent inside the cab.