Gulf Relay
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How one carrier revamped its truck driver health and wellness program

Nov. 14, 2022
Drivers have become increasingly unhealthy over the years, and the number of truckers on short-term DOT physical cards has increased since the pandemic. Check out how Gulf Relay has cultivated a culture of wellness and turned its drivers' health around.

The driver shortage has been a top industry concern for years; yet every year tens of thousands of drivers are disqualified due to failing their biennial Department of Transportation physicals.

The number of drivers disqualified last year because of failing their physicals, according to data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, was almost 350,000, driver wellness advocate Bob Perry told FleetOwner. That number doesn’t include drivers who take medical leave or who must leave the industry entirely for health issues before they can be issued a medical qualification by a DOT examiner.

“I tell all the carriers,” Perry said, that “I don’t know what the right program is for you, but I do know the wrong one, and that would be nothing at all.”

An aging driver population means a less healthy one, and the sedentary lifestyle of dozens of hours of driving per week, coupled with the mostly unhealthy food options at truck stops, results in high blood pressure and diabetes being rampant among the trucker population.

Perry, who is known as the “Trucker Trainer,” helped develop the Fit to Pass fitness program, which is designed to prepare drivers for DOT physicals. Fit to Pass identifies medically disqualified or at-risk drivers and offers resources, including one-on-one coaching sessions on-site or remotely, as well as exercise equipment and meal plans.

He said trucking’s large number of medical disqualifications is a problem that is getting worse. Fifty-five percent of drivers are on a short-term card of 90 days or one year, compared with 50% of drivers before the pandemic. Perry said he’s talked with fleets whose number of drivers on short-term cards was 58%, as well as one carrier that, of its pool of 200 truckers, had 70% of its drivers on short-term cards.

Gulf Relay revamps its wellness culture

In 2021, Mississippi-based carrier Gulf Relay lost four drivers because they were unable to pass physicals. COO Andy Vanzant knew something had to change if the company was to save the $7,000 or more it takes to hire each new driver.

“I’ve been in the business 29 years. I will tell you, the health of a driver has deteriorated,” Vanzant said. He added that if he measured driver health on a scale of one to 10, “If I thought it was a six back in 1993 when I started, it’s probably a four today.”

In January, Gulf Relay began by identifying which of its 225 drivers had physicals upcoming in the next 90 days. The company then offered help with truckers’ diet and exercise regimens via Fit to Pass. Of the five drivers who were most at risk of failing their physical, two began using Fit to Pass to improve their health, and those two saw success by obtaining a one-year medical card.

After this modest success, Gulf Relay began to invest more into checking on its drivers’ health, essentially maintaining drivers as one would equipment. Every month, Gulf Relay talks to its drivers who are within 90 days of a physical to assess what can be done to improve their chances of passing.

As Gulf Relay has fostered a culture that emphasizes wellness, it has incorporated a focus on health into orientation for new drivers. Each orientation session has a 30-minute block dedicated to Fit to Pass offerings, where a representative explains the options available to drivers, including establishing a personalized diet and exercise plan. Of 150 drivers who are over the road weekly, about 20 take advantage of personalized meal plans, but Vanzant said, “that number is way up than what it was.” The Fit to Pass representative also visits the site three times per week to answer any questions drivers might have and to offer advice.

Gulf Relay has also invested in specialized health equipment. Drivers can use a machine to measure their vitals, which are recorded in a company spreadsheet. There is a gym for any employee to use. However, there is the question of accessibility, as Gulf Relay is an operation that spans multiple buildings.

Another issue is that different aspects of a carrier—safety, operations, recruiting—are “siloed” from one another, communicating infrequently. As a carrier expands, these departments may be in different buildings miles apart, and the physical distance acts not only as a barrier to amenities like a company gym but, more importantly, to conversations about driver health.

Vanzant emphasized that to get a companywide wellness culture established, it must start at the top and trickle down. No issue, he said, will make it to the frontlines if it is not being talked about behind closed doors.

The carrier is running its second-annual weight-loss challenge, in which all personnel can participate, to raise additional awareness and help cultivate that culture. Gulf Relay pays $10 per pound lost and $500 to the employee who loses the most weight. Workers must check in weekly, have their vitals measured, and take a coaching call with a Fit to Pass representative. Thirteen completed the challenge last year after an initial enrollment of 31, and this year, 16 are tracking to complete it.

Vanzant said, “I’m not going to say, ‘We just saved $100,000 because we had people lose 80 pounds!’ I’m not. What I’m telling you is there’s a heightened awareness about it, that I think we’ll have gains year two, year three, and beyond.”

“It’s changed the culture of what we’re about.”

About the Author

Scott Keith

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