Caring for drivers

When a tragedy occurs on the road resulting in injury or death, truck drivers are often the forgotten players despite the mental trauma they endure.

REGINA, Sask. — The physical health of truck drivers is a much talked about topic given the nature of the job, but a driver’s mental well-being is equally important, particularly following a tragic occurrence.

After an incident involving what was reported to be a suicide where a person stepped in front of a transport truck, a Regina, Sask., woman noticed something about how the event was covered by the media.

“What troubled me most is the story seemed to center on the traumatic experience of the people driving by seeing the scene, which was grisly, and the paramedics and first responders at the scene,” said Morgan Beaudry. “They were, of course, traumatized because a suicide by truck is a terrible event…it is messy and there is a lot of gore.”

Beaudry, who is conducting research for her thesis paper at Royal Roads University for her Masters of Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, said little was reported on how the driver was doing following
the incident.

“There was one very short paragraph about the trucker that said he was doing fair and wasn’t sleeping well,” Beaudry said, who immediately wanted to know more about the trucker and what kind of support he was getting after being directly involved in a person’s death.

“He not only witnessed this collision, he was involved in it,” she said. “He’s not just there cleaning up the aftermath, he’s intimately involved in this and a causational factor.”

Much of Beaudry’s interest in this issue comes from a background in both the trucking industry, as well
as journalism.

She worked as an examiner for a truck driving school in Saskatchewan for six years, and was in media prior to that, which means she pays close attention to the news and how stories are reported.

For her thesis, Beaudry aimed to recruit a minimum of eight truck drivers who had experienced a tragic occurrence involving injury or death, and subsequently had an impact on their life.

It didn’t take long for drivers to come forward, so much so that Beaudry had to start turning drivers away.

“Truckers came out of the woodwork,” she said. “It has been an incredible privilege and exciting to see.”

In all, 15 drivers were signed up to take part in the research, exceeding Beaudry’s maximum of 12 and encroaching on the size of a PhD study.

Beaudry said the type of occurrence drivers experience when they are involved in an injury or death on the road is called vicarious trauma, which is different from what first responders go through dealing with the aftermath of an incident.

“Witnessing is its own horrible thing, it needs its own area of study,” she said, “but I wanted to talk to the drivers involved who had a causational or collateral role. All of this is really worth investigating, because we just really don’t know from the trucker’s perspective a whole lot about their trauma and experience.”

Beaudry said some studies have been done on this type of trauma for drivers, but the research has only involved interviews at truck stops using short surveys.

Her research, however, will go much more in depth. It involves the use of photographs and storytelling over a seven-week stretch, which started June 10 and concludes July 22, and will be analyzed thereafter.

Every week, drivers were given or came up with a question, and they had seven days to reply to that question using a photograph to depict their answer. They then explained the photo and how it answers the question.

“I’m putting the truckers in the driver’s seat because this is their study,” said Beaudry. “They are going to come up with some of the questions, more than half of them. They are my road scholars.”

Every driver was given a code name to protect their privacy, and all correspondence was done on an embargoed website called Knights of the Road.

“This is the first conversation that we’re having, a very intimate and personal one about how they feel about the way trauma has changed their life,” said Beaudry.

The study focused on how the drivers were different after their experience with vicarious trauma, whether negatively or positively, and did not directly address the incident itself.

Upon completion of her thesis, Beaudry would like to see the results used as a way to better support truck drivers who experience these types of traumas.

“I’d like to see the findings we get to toward finding supports that are useful to truckers, on their time on their terms, the resources they need,” Beaudry said, adding that it is the truckers who are the experts in what they require to deal with trauma.

Individual carriers are typically responsible to address driver trauma internally as opposed to being done through any other trucking agency, such as the Saskatchewan Trucking Association (STA).

The STA does not offer any such services to drivers who have experienced a traumatic experience on the road, but as executive director Susan Ewart points out, the subject has been brought up.

“We have been asked numerous times and it just hasn’t been something that has been on our radar,” Ewart said. “Our membership consists of trucking companies, and they should have benefit plans with employee assistance programs, and if they do not, that is very unfortunate.”

Ewart said the industry should work toward building a reference list of companies for members to contact when they have an employee who needs trauma assistance.

“I think as an industry, we can do better for truckers. This is an enormous population of people who are in a very vulnerable situation – trucking is a dangerous occupation. It is also the second largest employer of men in Canada after retail,” Beaudry added, citing a Stats Canada report from 2011.

“You have this massive group of individuals who are also considered an invisible workforce. They do not have a great reputation and they’re not characterized very flatteringly in the media half the time, so it’s hard to see them as people under some circumstances.”

Beaudry said her research provided drivers with a platform to speak about their feelings without anyone getting in their way.

And though she is excited about where these truck drivers will take the study, Beaudry is sure they will steer her in the right direction.

“I don’t know where we’re going, but I expect them to steer us right. These are truck drivers, they know what they’re doing,” she said. “Truckers are prepared to talk, it’s just a matter of a conversation that is really difficult, so you give them the freedom to take the conversation where they want it to go.”

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A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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  • I sincerely appreciate what Morgan is doing and would be very interested to read her research report when completed. As a facilitator of The Working Mind, Mental Health Commission of Canada as well as the executive director of a trucking safety association, we know that when injuries occur, the physical injury may heal, however, the psychological injury may not have been identified and therefore not treated. Stigma is the number one factor and we have to assist our industry break away the stigma so our employees will share their feelings without fear of repercussions when they do.

  • When you finish this study, perhaps, you might like to do two more: One on women truckers who have experienced this level of trauma, and a separate study on female truckers’ ordeal in dealing with their male counterparts, shippers, receivers and the general public. They endure sexual harassment on a daily basis.