"Clearly, [drivers] have the final responsibility to eat right and exercise. But the stress out on the road, the lack of time to exercise, all contribute to the issue. My personal belief is that the industry must do what it takes to support ways to make drivers more fit and healthy -- because the bottom line impact for trucking cannot be ignored." --Rebecca Brewster, president & CEO, American Transportation Research Institute.
Truck driver health -- both physical and mental -- are getting a lot of attention these days, and for good reason. Just for starters, according to recent research, 55% of truck drivers are overweight and more than 50% smoke, compared to national overall averages of 20.9% and 25%, respectively. To say that's not good is a huge understatement, for trucking is a job that requires -- above all things -- alertness and lighting quick reflexes, both of which suffer tremendously from sub-standard health.
Worker health isn't just a trucking issue, though -- it's a nationwide, indeed, worldwide issue -- but it's also one that's generating a lot of mixed responses from the corporate community. On the one hand, companies are rightly being encouraged to find ways to help their employees be more healthy -- to exercise, eat right, maintain a healthy weight, etc. -- yet on the other, companies are also trying to shed themselves of the costs associated with employee health care.
Witness the recent labor deals between General Motors and the United Auto Workers, along with United Parcel Service and the Teamsters. Both GM and UPS went to great lengths to get the unions to shoulder more of the healthcare and retirement burden of their employees. GM promised the UAW that it would not close any of its 16 U.S. manufacturing plant plus give up to $35 billion to a new Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA) that the UAW will use to cover the health care needs of GM retirees. UPS gave the Teamsters $9 more an hour and $6.1 billion so it can withdraw from the Teamster-controlled Central States pension fund. Both of those companies recognize that they alone cannot handle the rapid raise in healthcare costs, especially as more and more of their workers begin to retire.
Agree or disagree with their tactics as you may, both GM and UPS showcase how difficult it is coming to grips with this unfortunate fact of American life: we're far fatter and unhealthier than we've ever been in our history. For example, we're home to 22.6% of the world's obese population -- Mexico is a distant second at 5.3%. And while the medical establishment can treat the symptoms of that issue -- diabetes, high blood pressure, heart diesease, etc. -- the patients are the only ones who can really cure it.
That's even more important in trucking because so much rides on the capability of the driver. "Clearly, the health of commercial truck drivers is a focus of ours going forward," Annette Sandberg, FMCSA‘s former chief administrator, told me a few years back. "What we are looking at is how we can translate medical data into standards that help improve safety on the highway. We do know conditions like fatigue not only have an impact on the health of a driver but on their capability to operate a vehicle. What‘s clear is that we have to look at the driver as a key component of the overall truck - that we have to look at ways of improving their performance and capability so that, by extension, we improve truck safety."
Schneider National took this bull by the horns late last year by offering health services to its drivers through its 12 Operating Centers (company-owned truckstops) located across North America (our illustrious executive editor David Cullen wrote a superb column about this last year -- you can check it out on our web site), providing drivers with a range of no-cost health services, including blood-pressure monitoring, diet and nutrition counseling, exercise education and even physical therapy.
To help streamline the program for drivers , these dozen in-house clinics are tied together through an electronic medical-records system. This way, according to Schneider, if a driver moves, their records move with them and if treatment is started at one location, it can be maintained at another to let the driver maintain a normal work schedule. "Our success depends on our drivers," said Wendy Sullivan, Schneider's occupational health manager at the time. "These hardworking people struggle with the same health issues as you and me. But their situations are often made worse because they're away for extended periods without easy access to health services."
That's creative thinking, and it's what we're going to need if we're every going to get the cost of healthcare -- both present and future -- back down to reasonable levels.