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Taking the Pulse: Trucking at Top of the Heap for Poor Health, Injuries

November 12, 2013 By: Steve Mitchell Tags: Blogs

When it comes to the physical well being of the average full-time, long-haul commercial truck driver in this country, the available statistics don’t paint a pretty picture.

Just take a look at some of the numbers.

According to a survey conducted last year through the Department of Public Health Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), 83 percent of the truck drivers in that study were found to be overweight or obese. Another 58 percent had sleeping disorders, 56 percent claimed they often suffered fatigue, and 42 percent complained of pain in their back, neck, shoulders and/or upper limbs. Then there were the 40 percent who admitted they had “concerns” about the condition of their hearts.

To add insult to such injury and illness, most of the 316 truck drivers participating in the North Carolina study (75 percent) told survey takers they initially believed they were in pretty good health.

That study, called the Healthy Trucker Survey (HEATS), said the average participant had five years of behind-the-wheel commercial truck driving experience and spent more than 17 days on the road each month. About a third of the drivers said they had no health insurance, with nearly a quarter of those saying they couldn’t afford it. Forty-two percent said their idea of medical care is grabbing up some over-the-counter drugs when sick on the road, while another 20 percent said they wait until they get home to seek medical care.

And seven out of 10 respondents admitted they don’t exercise on a regular basis — if at all.

The outlook drawn by the UNCG researchers shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone: “The trucking occupation places drivers at high risk for poor health outcomes,” the 31-page study concluded.

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says truck drivers consistently suffer more nonfatal occupational illnesses and injuries than any other occupation.

That agency’s 2006 research study cites “lifestyle factors” as a major player in poor truck driver health. Among other health issues, this highly sedentary occupation promotes high blood pressure, weight gain, obesity, musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease and possibly some cancers, according to the study.

Factor in a poor diet, a lack of fitness, sleep disorders, depression, non-medicated diabetes and a history of heart disease, and there’s no wonder commercial drivers are at the top of the pile when it comes to pinpointing the riskiest profession. Given these ominous health statistics, truckers make those reality show King Crab fishermen in Alaska’s Bering Sea look like weekend anglers. Almost.

Then there are the accident figures. The NIOSH research study said the 112,232 injury cases suffered by commercial truck drivers in 2002 fell into several categories. About 29 percent suffered overexertion, 17.5 percent were the result of contact with objects and equipment, 13.5 percent were transportation incidents, and 11.5 percent were the result of falls.

So there you have it. Plenty of statistics and plenty of causes for concern. And while being armed with such knowledge is a good thing, unless that knowledge is put to practical use, it’s pretty much worthless.

Which is why commercial truck fleets across the nation, as well as trucking industry organizations and operators of the largest truckstop conglomerates, are beginning to take seriously the eating, exercising and health habits of employees in this labor-intense occupation.

More and more freight carriers are holding health seminars for their employees, building on-site gyms and establishing walking and running trails adjacent to their facilities. They’re employing nutritional experts and fitness trainers, and hosting health expos, weight-loss competitions — many with rewards for the winning individual or teams — company walks and exercise programs.

One organization in particular that stands at the forefront of awareness when it comes to looking out for the well-being of commercial drivers is the Healthy Trucking Association of America (HTTA), a not-for-profit group out of Montgomery, Ala., formed in 1997 for the primary purpose of providing health and wellness information to over-the-road drivers.

Bill Gordon is the executive director of HTTA, and he says long-distance drivers are under constant pressure from their dispatchers to get to their destinations on time — which means the truck seldom stops except for fueling. As a result, he says, “these drivers are often forced to grab whatever food they can at places not known for healthy choices.”

What most “civilians” don’t understand, is that truck drivers have time constraints, limited dining selections and few parking options that would enable them to stop off most anywhere, grab a healthy bite to eat and maybe get in some exercise. And when they are mandated to pull over for a rest period, it’s almost always a chance to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

But Gordon says drivers can begin regaining control of their health by taking baby steps — action that can eventually lead them to committing to a full-on investment in their own well being. Small steps. Like replacing those daily soft drinks with water — lots of water.

But who wants to give up the sugary taste and (temporary) energy boost of a bottle of soda for a boring, tasteless bottle of water? It’s a difficult habit to break, but Gordon says,” that one step alone can make a big difference in your health.” He says that through new health awareness measures — many brought about by campaigns like those offered by HTTA — fleets and truckstops are cutting back on sugary drinks in vending machines, replacing them with healthier alternatives.

As for healthy food, restaurants at almost all truckstops now offer healthy alternatives, including salad bars with light dressing, deli sandwiches, low-carb offerings and vegetables. Keeping an eye on serving sizes and selecting carefully among the buffet items is the secret. Many truckstops now feature Subway and Arby’s, which do offer some healthier items on the menu.

Even convenience markets within truckstops now stock low-fat yogurt or fruit cups, packages of nuts or sunflower seeds, low-fat string cheese, whole-grain pretzels, soy crisps, dried fruit or fresh fruit.

Many health-conscious drivers equip their rigs with small freezers for healthy frozen dinners — prepared ahead of time and at home — that they can heat on the road. Others have Crock-Pots, which are relatively inexpensive and can slow-cook a tasty meal en route to the next break area. Other truckers prepare and refrigerate sandwiches, finger food, fruit and snacks before leaving home, ensuring more healthy alternatives — and a good way to save money on the road.

And when it comes to exercise, nobody’s suggesting a five-mile run after lunch when you’ve got to be in Des Moines by 3 p.m. The experts say taking a brisk walk around your rig or the parking lot for 20 or 30 minutes is a good way to get the kinks out, get your heart pumping and clear your head. And it’s a lot healthier than that seventh cup of coffee or a toxic energy drink for the artificial jolt you think you need to get started.

But all the reports and surveys and polls from all the government agencies, health groups and trucking industry organizations in the world won’t force busy commercial truck drivers to eat well, go for a walk or get enough sleep.

It’s an inside job where the person behind the wheel must be a willing participant.