Trucker health: a growing crisis - part 2

Nov. 13, 2018
Experts offer fresh ideas specifically for the unique nature of the job.

Editor's note: This is a continuation of a story published on Monday. 

Barry Pawelek was a trucker back “before there was any thought about drivers being healthy.” Then, in the mid-’90s, he started Truck Stop Events to encourage truck driver health and wellness throughout the industry at rest areas, truck shows, and just about anywhere he could find a driver willing to listen.

Even after health and wellness began to appear on the industry’s radar, “no one did anything about it.” Over the past decade, he said there has been a surge of health-related spending as “trucking companies jumped on the bandwagon.” However, the money spent building gyms and taking other steps has failed to solve a health problem that is resulting in many drivers being forced out of the industry and others failing to achieve long-lasting improvements.

For Pawelek, the problem comes down to a lack of education. It is why he has spent a quarter-century developing games to get health and wellness information out there, and often dresses up as a leprechaun at truck stops and trucking shows. While he believes that is making a difference, he urges a more coordinated effort to create a system similar to the SmartWay program set up by the Environmental Protection Agency to encourage greater fuel efficiency.

Bringing together health experts with those who truly understand the difficulties of the freight transportation industry could yield guidelines and programs tailored for truckers.

Siphewe Baleka, founder of Fitness Trucking, believes more authoritative steps must be taken, including direct action by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).  Since drivers must pass physical exams every two years, a wellness mandate must be considered, he said.

Baleka suggested a model based on his own four-minute fitness program. He documented how to transform a person’s life four minutes at a time in his book, aptly  titled 4-Minute Fit.   

“This is a low- to no-cost solution to address at the foundational level the low-hanging fruit of what can practically be done on a day-to-day basis by the drivers themselves,” he explained of the four-minute workout.

Similarly, Pawelek said some of his most effective tips involved showing drivers “that a truck is a gym on tires,” and it does not require special equipment. Another idea, he said, is having truckers drop pennies on the ground on the way into a truck stop, On the walk back to the truck, they simply stop to pick them up. 

For Baleka, who was an owner-operator leased to Prime Inc., the path back to health started with high-intensity workouts lasting about 15 minutes whenever he had time out of the cab.  He reached out to Prime founder and CEO Robert Low, who Baleka praises for his willingness to invest in drivers’ health.

Low gave Baleka a position within the company allowing him to create a wellness program. That resulted in more than 600 drivers losing 6,000 lbs. in a 10-month span and became the launching point for stepping away from Prime and seeking a wider audience to hear his fitness message. 

FMCSA declined to address the ideas presented by Baleka and Pawelek, but said in a statement it used to promote the North American Fatigue Management Program. That program offers information and resources “that do have a nexus with driver health and wellness,” an FMCSA spokesman said.

The American Trucking Associations did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association downplayed the suggestions, instead saying food choices and exercise resources remain a challenge when out on the road.

Despite those challenges, Healthy Trucker’s Andrea Morley said “all drivers need to be responsible for their own health.”

“Staying healthy means more quality years later in life,” she added.

Electronic health: Smart phone apps help build a trucker-focused health community.

About the Author

Neil Abt

Neil Abt, editorial director at Fleet Owner, is a veteran journalist with over 20 years of reporting experience, including 15 years spent covering the trucking industry. A graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., he began his career covering sports for The Washington Post newspaper, followed by a position in the newsroom of America Online (AOL) and then both reporting and leadership roles at Transport Topics. Abt is based out of Portland, Oregon.

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