DRIVER health is of increasing concern to a growing number of trucking, and with good reason. The driver shortage is growing by the day, as are healthcare costs.

Many carriers have come to realize that the driver is the most precious cargo in the truck, according to Wendy Sullivan, Registered Nurse and vice-president of Precision Pulmonary Diagnostics. She spoke on driver health and wellness during National Tank Truck Carriers' 63rd Annual Conference May 22-24 in Baltimore, Maryland.

“You have to protect your driver's health today,” Sullivan said. “You simply can't afford not to. Carriers need to be proactive, and that starts with understanding driver demographics.”

On average, 92% of commercial truck drivers are male, and 48% have a Body Mass Index (an indicator of body fat) greater than 30, which is defined as obese. Average age is mid-40s, and an estimated 30% smoke. Major health conditions for truck drivers include diabetes, cardiac ailments, respiratory issues, neurological events, cancers, and metal health issues.

“Companies need to take action in educating and motivating their employees,” Sullivan said. “Companies often see wellness program investments as hard to measure in terms of return on investment. They see the benefit as ‘soft dollars.’ Companies need to look at worker compensation, for instance, and realize that wellness programs can prevent some of those costs.

“A perfect health and wellness program for drivers may not be possible, but you can stop driver health from getting worse. It may be as simple as convincing a driver to walk around his truck a couple of times with each break. That can add up to miles over time. It's also important to convince drivers to cut food portions as part of a weight-loss effort.”

Steve Rush, NTTC 2010-2011 chairman and president of Carbon Express Inc, said his company talks with drivers about health and wellness issues at least once a month. He added that any health and wellness program has to start at the top. “Management has to embrace diet and exercise programs before pushing drivers in that direction, he said.

Greg Hodgen, NTTC 2011-2012 chairman and president of Groendyke Transport Inc, said his company tries to encourage walking. “It's tough because many of the areas where they park simply aren't safe enough for walking around,” he said. “We've also provided health screenings for the past three years, and it has been successful, in part, because drivers are competitive and they want to show that they are doing better than others.”

Sleep apnea continues to draw more attention from federal regulators. Under pressure from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, more Department of Transportation-registered medical examiners are referring drivers to diagnostic and treatment programs.

“Fatigued driving and falling asleep are big concerns, and are linked to sleep apnea,” Sullivan said. “Heart disease is an even bigger concern. Treating sleep apnea helps reduce the potential for some of the health biggies, including hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and depression.”

Sleep apnea reportedly affects about 28% of drivers, and an integrated disease management program can lower health care costs by as much as 50% per driver per month, according to Sullivan.

“We're going to see a lot more focus on health and wellness programs for truck drivers,” Sullivan said. “In addition to government scrutiny, various health groups are getting involved. It's all about improving the driver's health, or stopping it from getting worse, or both.” ♦

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