NZTA - Truck driver health – an industry issue

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

With more than 90% of the freight task in New Zealand moved by trucks, it is critical that the drivers of these trucks are healthy. The average age of a truck driver in New Zealand is the midfifties, with a significant number aged 60 to 70-plus years old. Despite many great industry initiatives, we are faced with an aging workforce; this is causing concern for the industry as it tries to attract younger drivers.
Driving a truck for a living can be a difficult job. With long hours behind the wheel, it can be both sedentary and physically demanding at the same time, and driving trucks has become a profession with a reputation for poor health. The industry needs to become more aware that the health of the industry is coupled with the health of the drivers.
Poor health contributes to high healthcare costs, loss of productivity, and accidents, which can negatively affect business profits and can cost lives. Drivers have a high health risk for:
• Obesity
• Mental illness, including depression and anxiety
• Hearing and vision problems
• Problems with sleep, including sleep apnoea and insomnia
• Fatigue
• Pain
• Poor diet
• Lack of physical activity and exercise
• Diabetes
• High blood pressure, heart, and cardiovascular diseases.

Improving the health of our drivers should be a top priority for improving the wellness and profitability of the trucking industry. The place to start is wellness training with the drivers. Helping drivers understand how their own choices can negatively affect their health is the most important step towards helping drivers recognise their bad habits and getting them to take action to improve their health. Raising awareness of the risk factors for long- and short-term health outcomes can start drivers on the road to better productivity, with a reduced risk of accidents and other negative health and safety outcomes. Technology like the Fitbit and other wearable devices that track activity and sleep as well as other biometric measurements can be one of the tools in helping drivers understand their health and encourage them to make the changes that will improve their health.

This technology, coupled with programmes to encourage weight loss, smoking cessation, increased physical activity, and better sleep, gives us some of the best tools to improve the overall health of drivers throughout the industry. Drivers should be encouraged to seek regular medical checkups that not only look to take care of their current medical issues, but also include counselling and resources for improving health. This also means encouraging a culture of wellness within the industry itself. Punishing those people with poor health is not the way to get a healthier population; workplace programmes that focus on threats of loss of benefits or even the loss of a job for the unhealthy are usually short-term and are bad for the overall morale of the workplace. You cannot just provide an information-only wellness programme and offer no other support or services to help your drivers get healthy. This might encourage some people, but will not help drivers as a group to make changes.

What does work is a multi-pronged proactive programme that combines information with services and reinforcement of a healthy culture. Implement a programme to shift the workplace culture to supporting healthy habits. The most effective wellness programme is one that is focused on each individual driver. Look around your own workplace – what kinds of snacks are available, is it easier to get a soft drink than water? Does the morning revolve around the coffee machine? What changes can you make in the workplace that send the message that you care about your drivers’ health? Creativity is needed, since so many drivers are eating out on the road.

Providing benefits that include gym memberships, nutrition counselling, weight loss services, and smoking cessation, makes it easier for drivers to get healthy and also sends the message that health is something your company is serious about, not just another topic for lip service. But you also have to talk about health, incorporating information about health risks and good health choices into safety meetings, newsletters, and other communications as part of an overall wellness programme. The big thing is not to treat getting your drivers healthy as a new fad, but a long-term business commitment, just like a long-term commitment to improving driver safety and reducing accidents.

Improving safety and reducing accidents is one of the outcomes that will happen naturally when your drivers get healthier. Good health is not just good for your drivers, it also improves morale and productivity, reduces absenteeism, and overall makes your business more profitable. As the industry faces driver shortages, changing the perception that driving is an unhealthy career choice will also help to encourage more people to join the industry as they see that a career in truck driving is also a healthy career.

The New Zealand Trucking Association delivers the ‘Healthy Truck Driver’ programme from the Safety MAN Road Safety Truck to trucking companies around New Zealand. The programme is designed to help truck drivers identify the symptoms and causes of common truck driver health issues. Each participant is given a booklet to take home that identifies the key health issues, with useful links for further information, advice, and help. By participating in the Healthy Truck Driver programme, you are helping to start conversations and encouraging your drivers to become healthy drivers. 
You can request a visit at www.roadsafetytruck.co.nz.