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The Price We Pay

by Jim Park

Everything has a price. And the price to be paid for living the life of a long-haul trucker, it seems, is 15 years. We're not talking about a jail term, or a period of exile from one's family. That would be infinitely better than the 15 years we're talking about.

According to Dr. Martin Moore-Ede, a Toronto-based researcher and fatigue specialist, male truckers live an average of 15 years less than other male members of society. The average American male, Moore-Ede says, can reasonably expect to live to the ripe old-age of 76 while truckers -statistically speaking- seldom make it much beyond age 61.

That's pretty scary!

The logical question is why. Health and fitness are prime indicators of a person's longevity, and clearly many truck drivers don't have much of an opportunity to keep fit or to eat properly. That's one strike against us. Fatigue is another: chronic and acute sleep deprivation take their toll over time by weakening our body's immune systems, exposing us to more viral and bacterial infections, and lessening our ability combat the more aggressive intruders. Among other things, the long term effects of fatigue can lead to a higher-than-normal incidence of everyday maladies such a colds and flu, but there's a evidence to suggest that even more serious problems tend to appear more frequently in individuals who are habitually sleep deprived.

And then there are the accident and injury statistics. Statistics on both sides of the 49th Parallel indicate that trucking is statistically one of the most dangerous occupations in the book.

In a report entitled Occupational Injuries and Their Cost in Canada: 1993 - 1997, Human Resources and Development Canada claims that of all workers in federally regulated workplaces, those engaged in interprovincial trucking suffered more on the job injuries than any other sector.

According to the report, in 1997, there were 59 fatalities from work-related illness and injury in industries under federal jurisdiction: 23 of them were truck drivers.

In the same year, the industrial sectors with the highest number of fatalities in 1997 were: interprovincial road transport with 23 deaths and air transport with 17. The three sectors with the highest number of occupational injuries were: interprovincial road transport, 12,868; air transport, 10,736; and postal contractors, 8,253. Interprovincial road transport, with 11.3% of the employment under federal jurisdiction, reported 23.8% of the occupational injuries.

Between 1992-95, almost 3,000 U.S. truck drivers lost their lives in the line of duty. In that same time frame, truck driving recorded the most fatalities of all occupations, accounting for 12 percent of all worker deaths. Truck drivers also suffered more nonfatal injuries (over 151,000) than workers in any other occupation in 1995.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration tracks this type of data. In the fall of 1997, Andrew T. Knestaut published a report called Fatalities and Injuries Among Truck and Taxicab Drivers. In the report, Knestaut breaks down the types of injuries, how and when they happened and he even takes a stab at explaining why they occurred.

About two-thirds of the fatally injured truckers were involved in highway crashes, with two-thirds of those drivers being behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer truck. Other vehicles fatally struck over 200 drivers while out of their trucks; half of these occurred during hours of twilight or darkness, 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. Yet, almost half were fatally struck during the day.

Activity of dismounted truck drivers when fatally struck by vehicle, 1992-95.

ActivityNumberPercent
Total234100
Truck transport operations11750
Entering, exiting truck146
Directing, flagging traffic146
Walking near truck6829
Crossing street167
Walking behind truck167
Truck maintenance2310
Loading, unloading truck198
Other activity5925
Unspecified activity167

Knestaut also suggests that time of day played a significant role in the number of incidents resulting in a fatality. As the numbers indicate, a majority of the accidents occurred between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. This isn't terribly surprising: more trucking occurs during the daylight hours because that's when the shippers and receivers are open, and that's when most commerce takes place.

The period between midnight and 4:00 a.m. is relatively quite, predictably, as that's when the highways seem to bare the least amount of traffic. The 4:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. period, however, shows a dramatic increase in the number of fatal incidents over a four-hour period. Combined, one-third of the fatal highway incidents occurred between midnight and 8:00 a.m., when the need for rest may be greatest. That's when the body's natural inclination to be sleeping is at its strongest.

Here's an interesting twist to the statistics: Knestaut reports that during the period from 1992 to 1995, there were only 130 (4% of the total) run-off-highway-no collision incidents -the type most frequently associated with falling asleep at the wheel.

This implies that the statistically most dangerous time of day to be driving is the period between 4:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., yet the least likely occurrence is the classic fatigue related incident: running off of the road with no attempt to recover. Does this suggest that drivers are less likely to fall asleep at the wheel during the wee hours of the morning? On the contrary: it suggests that lots of drivers are sufficiently fatigued to be making all sorts of mistakes and errors in judgement during those hours, causing the types of collisions that aren't readily attributable to fatigue such as sideswipes or striking a pedestrian.

Those occurrences are also classic sign of fatigued drivers. Although the accident reporting methods may not indicate fatigue as a primary factor, it likely played a role. It could also suggest that the drivers of other vehicles are fatigued as well, exposing you to greater risk of a collision.

Truck Driver Fatalities by Time of Day

Time of incidentNumberPercent
Midnight - 4 a.m.31111%
4 a.m. - 8 a.m.48616%
8 a.m. - noon70824%
noon - 4 p.m.71024%
4 p.m. - 8 p.m.36312%
8 p.m. - midnight2408%

Non-fatal Injuries

Still using the American data, as reported by Andrew T. Knestaut; truck drivers had more non-fatal injuries (over 151,000) than workers in any other occupation in 1995 . Half of the nonfatal injuries were serious sprains and strains, which Knestaut attributes to the fact that many truck drivers are required to unload the goods they transport. Tight schedules may mean drivers have little time to waste at delivery sites. To save time, they get right down to lifting and moving heavy items immediately upon arrival.

An underlying factor explaining these injuries may be the sedentary nature of the job. Drivers spend many hours sitting behind a steering wheel. Strenuous activity after hours of sitting, without time to stretch stiff muscles, may help explain why drivers sustain these injuries. In addition, Knestaut suggests some truck drivers may not be aware of proper lifting techniques, or the benefits of wearing back support gear.

The sprains and strains were likely the result of overexertion during unloading, and when drivers were struck by the objects they were moving. The back was the part of body affected in over a quarter of the truck driver's non-fatal injury cases.

Non-fatal injuries by Type

TypeNumberPercentage
Sprains, Strains78,36052%
Fractures11,0177%
Trunk63,40942%
Back42,10228%
Repetitive motion1,0591%

It's funny how government works. It's obvious that there's a problem with truckers being killed or injured in the course of their duties, which presents plenty of opportunity to intervene in a meaningful manner. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), however, recently issued a notice of proposed rulemaking which would require employers to create programs to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries. OSHA officials say trucking is one of the industries that will need to make the most changes in the workplace.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) strongly opposes the proposal, saying the new rules, initially proposed a year ago, are "completely unworkable," not based on sound science, too costly and not necessary.

ATA also strongly disputes OSHA's claim that the proposals will cost the trucking industry $200 million. ATA believes the truer figure is probably closer to $6.5 billion, based on an estimate put forth after a similar proposal was drafted in 1995.

Go back to the above chart, and you'll notice that repetitive motion injuries accounted for just one percent of all the on-the-job incidents reported by drivers.

If the ATA estimates it would take a minimum of US$6.5 billion to tackle the repetitive motion injury problem; imagine what it would cost to go after the larger, more serious hazards faced by truck drivers in the course of a day.

Some of the problem lies with simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. How can one hope to eliminate the threat of being struck by a car while walking near the truck on a busy roadway? Drivers can be trained to recognize the hazard and urged to take more caution while working around their trucks, and certainly drivers can be taught to enter and exit the cab properly, but it all comes down to the driver practicing what he's been taught. Or using good old common sense.

Avoiding collisions is not quite as simple. But clearly there's a need for a better understanding of the effects of fatigue, and the risks associated with operating at times when the threat is at it's highest.

As far as the serious and not-so-serious injuries caused by strenuous activity: it's largely a matter of better conditioning and a little stretching and limbering-up before jumping into the trailer and tackling that load of 50-lb bags of coffee.

Lifestyle Issues

But it doesn't stop there. Physical threats to our health and welfare are real enough and certainly worth taking a long hard look at, but Dr. Moore-Ede's, findings probably don't include the number of drivers who make a premature departure under a smoldering pile of wreckage. Health, or the lack of it, takes more drivers' lives than all the accidents combined: prevention of disease and physical degradation is something we can all work remedy to every day.

It's not easy to eat and exercise properly when you're on the road. In fact, it takes an extraordinary effort to add even a short daily workout to your routine. And obviously, the lack of proper rest is as much as fact of life as it is an occupational hazard. Combine all these factors -poor diet, poor physical conditioning, stress and chronic fatigue- and you've got exactly the formula that is guaranteed to rob 15 years from your life expectancy.

So what's to be done? We can wait until some government commission recommends sweeping changes to the industry to prohibit drivers from unloading their own trailers, driving when it's statistically more dangerous, regulating the types of food served in truckstops or how much exercise we get in the course of a week. Can you imagine being required to keep an exercise log to prove you've done your sit-ups and push-ups every morning? That's not likely to happen, so, it's pretty well up to us. That means setting your priorities a little differently, and making time into your schedule to permit a little of that oh so necessary rest and relaxation.

How you use that time is up to you, but consider the long-term payoff. If getting the load there on time, all the time, means winding up six-feet-under 15 years sooner than other folk, than it's not a great return for all your effort.

And don't say that it can't be done. It's a matter of priorities. If you allow someone else to call all the shots, you'll wind up the loser. We're not talking about an hour's pay here; we're talking 15 years off of your life, not your dispatcher's.

Leave it to the Ladies

For all the doom and gloom about the physical condition of truck drivers, most of the studies that have been conducted have come to the same conclusion: truck drivers are generally in sub-standard physical health. But take heart: there's a new study that's just been released that focused on the health concerns of female truck drivers that just might get the whole issue a little more air play.

The report, published by the University of Kentucky's Department of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health in September 2000, found that while the women drivers generally are in good health, they often must struggle to obtain care if they become ill on long trips.

Overall, women drivers in the study reported significant health problems: 28 percent had sinus problems; 18 percent reported back problems; 38 percent get essentially no exercise; 17 percent complained of migraine headaches and 15.5 percent said they had high blood pressure. Another 8.5 percent reported problems with depression. Overall, 44 percent rated their health as only good or fair to poor.

In the study, almost 41 percent of respondents said they were unhappy with health-care access on the road. Obstacles to care ranged from a lack of health insurance 20 percent of women in the study had none to the simple logistics of getting to a hospital or doctor when driving a tractor trailer. "Most medical center parking lots won't handle an 18-wheeler," noted Deborah Reed, an assistant professor of nursing at UK.

Who knows, perhaps the influx of women into the business will prompt a more serious look at some of the health issues faced by all drivers. At the risk of seeming to be overly cynical, researchers are always looking for new fields of study, and women in trucking certainly qualify as nearly unbroken ground. If the researchers probe deeply enough, they're bound to discover that most of the challenges posed by life behind the wheel affect men and women equally. If that prompts a more serious examination of the overall affect that trucking can have on life expectancy, then it'll be good for everybody.

Fifteen years is a lot to give up for the privilege of being of being a truck driver. Lord knows you work hard enough, and give up enough while you're still alive and kicking. Keeling over 15 years sooner than you're supposed to is too high a price to pay under any circumstances. If you think the kids miss you now...

Your comments and opinions are welcome; encouraged in fact. Please submit you responses to jim@highwaystarmagazine.com, or call (416) 614-5811. We'll publish all suitable responses in our view point section: Issues on the Roll. Edited for clarity, libel, slander and stupidity, of course.

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