Photo: Karen Kuehn/Alicia Hughes

Tackling driver health

Nov. 18, 2018
Are industry leaders doing enough to make a difference?

No matter how you measure it, the Smartway program has been a success. Launched in 2004, the voluntary public-private program from the Environmental Protection Agency has been credited with saving U.S. trucking companies about $30 billion in fuel costs through improved freight transportation efficiency and supply chain sustainability.

On the surface, it may seem that the Smartway program has little to do with the health and wellness of truck drivers. However, that’s not the case for Barry Pawelek, a former truck driver who transitioned into the health and wellness arena about a quarter-century ago. He is often seen dressed up as a leprechaun at truck stops and industry events to engage today’s drivers about the health challenges they are facing out on the road.

Pawelek said he has observed “health and wellness” become industry buzzwords in recent years, but does not believe there is enough education or care available for too many drivers.

He urged the creation of a similar voluntary program bringing together industry stakeholders with health and wellness experts to navigate through this crisis.

Another former trucker, Siphiwe Baleka, believes far swifter action is required. the former athlete witnessed first-hand how difficult being a truck driver is when he gained 10% of his body weight during his first couple of months on the road.

His personal experiences led him to create a successful fitness program for Prime Inc., and he has since created Fitness Trucking. He told Fleet Owner he does not believe high-level trucking industry leaders and regulators are taking this crisis seriously enough, suggesting there is far more lip service than real action.

While researching driver health for a feature story, I found a variety of people eager to talk about health and wellness. Most agreed there is a health crisis in trucking, but many expressed a sense of optimism that everything from smartphone apps to updated amenities at truck stops were beginning to make a difference for those trying to make a positive change in their lives.

However, I also found a surprising number of groups that were unusually timid in discussing health, which gives credence to Baleka’s claims to me that repeated efforts to engage these groups were falling on deaf ears.

American Trucking Associations did not respond to multiple requests to comment on the health and wellness of the industry. The Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association said little more than being a truck driver is difficult.

Likewise, after several attempts, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration e-mailed that while it has “not actively promoted the North American Fatigue Management Program for some time, the information and resource materials remain available online — and there are elements of the program that do have a nexus with driver health and wellness.”

Part of the reluctance to speak about health and wellness could be an effort to avoid talking about potential regulations.

In 2016, the Trump administration withdrew a potential rule to screen and train personnel for sleep apnea, saying proper procedures were already in place.

But that doesn’t alter the research from the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), trucking’s internal research branch, which found about 28% of truckers suffer from some form of sleep apnea.

ATRI’s recent work on sleep apnea has focused more on the costs of testing and treatment and has shifted away from highlighting those who may need help and don’t know it yet.

There are many larger fleets that do provide treatment for sleep apnea and other ailments. Yet far more truck drivers do not have that luxury — or understand all of the risks.

With endless talk of a trucker shortage and a push to raise the image of the profession, certainly a coordinated focus on health and wellness would assist with both of these goals.

Now if only more were ready to openly discuss it.

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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