The trucking industry’s musculoskeleton in the closet

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TORONTO, Ont. — In many jurisdictions across Canada, workers’ compensation premiums have continued to climb in recent years even as trucking’s on-road safety record has improved. The rise in premiums – sometimes in the double digits – have elicited howls of disapproval from within the industry, yet an analysis by Truck News has revealed there are legitimate cost drivers behind the increases.

Across Canada, the trucking industry is among the worst, if not the worst, contributor of musculoskeletal-type injuries – sprains, strains, fractures and soft tissue injuries – and as the driver population ages, the trend has little chance of reversing itself unless trucking companies take a more proactive approach towards training and injury prevention.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and soft tissue injuries are easily dismissed by fleets and drivers, because they often appear as seemingly harmless injuries – annoyances, really – that can be worked through. However, these injuries nag and persist over time and have the potential to put a driver out of work for an extended duration, ultimately becoming one of the most costly types of injuries to workers’ compensation boards such as the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) in Ontario.

Mark Skinner, research and development consultant with the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association (IHSA), whose mission is to provide sector-specific support and injury prevention solutions that promote health and safety in the workplace, said there’s a troubling sense of complacency and lack of awareness of the issue in the transport industry. In Ontario, IHSA has identified three main sources of lost time injuries (LTIs): fractures and musculoskeletal disorders related to lower back and shoulder injuries. Lower back injuries comprise 19.2% of all lost time injuries and of those, transportation contributes 58%. (A lost time injury is defined as any injury that causes a worker to miss at least one day of work). When you drill down into General Trucking (Category 570), trucking specifically contributes 24% of all lost time injuries. General Trucking also accounted for 23.1% of all lost time injuries related to fractures.

“We’re looking at other groups of longshoremen workers, materials handlers, public works and other labourers and what we see on top of all these different categories is that 570 sits there as a major contributor to all these high-impact LTI claims,” Skinner said. “We’re trying to get this idea across that MSDs cost money and that 570 (General Trucking) is the worst performer, even worse than construction, believe it or not.”

The same is true elsewhere across Canada. In B.C., MSD injuries are “The leading cause of workers’ compensation claims within the trucking industry,” said Rob Weston, executive director of the Trucking Safety Council of B.C. “I don’t think it’s well understood. We in the trucking industry have always concentrated our safety energy on thinking about the truck driver and his driving capabilities and the vehicle and its safety. I think just as much or more energy should be placed on thinking about the human factors of driving a truck and working in the trucking industry. We’ve made good progress in improving the mechanical condition of the vehicles, I think it’s time to start working on the human conditions in the trucking industry.”


Why the risk?

So, what makes truck drivers so susceptible to MSD-related injuries, when in many cases the majority of their workday is spent sitting still? IHSA’s Skinner explained the body is prone to injury when long periods of sitting are followed by short bursts of activity, such as handbombing freight, tarping loads or even fueling up a truck, washing the windshield, etc.

“Sitting for long periods of time isn’t the issue,” he said. “It’s getting up and doing work after sitting for long periods of time that leads to overexertion and sprains and strains.”

Drivers also are frequently injured when climbing in and out of the truck cab, especially when they don’t utilize the three points of contact method that’s widely preached by safety departments, yet all-too-often ignored.

“Just getting in and out of the vehicle and in and out of trailers is a major issue,” Skinner explained. “We still see guys flinging themselves out of the cab.”

The Trucking Safety Council of B.C. has created an online simulation ( that shows just how damaging jumping from the cab can be on the human body. A 220-lb man jumping from the cab to the ground drives 1,637 lbs of force up through his body, overstressing the knees, ankles, hips and back. Even jumping from the lowest step – a mere 16 inches from the ground – causes more than 300 lbs of force and increases the likelihood of slips and falls, major contributors of MSD-related injuries.

Sylvia Rhodes, president of L. Ritchie Cartage, became attuned to the costs of MSD-type injuries when reviewing her company’s WSIB claims and noticing certain soft tissue injuries like sprains and strains repeatedly reared their heads. In 2007, her company, along with five other trucking firms, volunteered to participate in a two-year study by the Centre of Research Expertise for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders (CRE-MSD) to identify ways of reducing these types of injuries in the trucking industry.

“They would utilize us as their guinea pigs and we’d learn more about MSDs, what the root causes of them are in our industry and in turn we received the benefits of their expertise in MSDs so we could proactively apply that within our organization, so it was a win-win,” Rhodes said.

What emerged was that drivers were in many instances not utilizing three points of contact when entering or exiting the cab, something L. Ritchie Cartage placed a greater emphasis on in its future training sessions. Did eyes glaze over?

“They were rather dismissive of a lot of it initially,” Rhodes admitted of the company’s drivers. “But through repetition, acceptance evolved.”

Rhodes said L. Ritchie Cartage has seen a noticeable decline in its lost time injuries since training drivers on the subject and placing a greater emphasis on things like maintaining three points of contact.

“We’ve seen the silly incidences go away,” she said of injuries related to drivers doing things that put themselves at risk of a slip or fall. “They’re not absent from work for stupid things; they’re not falling because they’re not climbing on their tires to clear snow off their windshields.”


Ergonomic equipment

The unfortunate reality for professional drivers is that the equipment they’re required to work with each day is inherently unergonomic. Daily chores like cranking a trailer’s dolly legs or pulling the fifth wheel handle wreak havoc on the human body. Combine this with the fact many drivers are out of shape due to long hours of sitting and you have a recipe for an MSD injury.

While truck cab design on newer models has received unprecede
nted attention to ergonomics, IHSA’s Skinner routinely takes a tape measure to the inside of a cab and has found many instances where the steering wheel was offset from the driver’s seat by as much as three inches.

“You’re driving for 12 hours and your back is offset by three inches,” he said. “That puts a huge strain on your back muscles and your spinal cord.”

Air ride seats with lumbar support are now widely available, but Skinner said few fleets show drivers how to use them in order to reap the benefits. Automatic transmissions can alleviate an enormous amount of punishment from a driver’s shoulder, knee and ankle over time, Skinner pointed out. Yet for all the technological improvements, he added “I got into a truck the other day and I didn’t see much difference from 10 or 15 years ago. I still had to stumble up the stairs because the stairs were too far apart. You wouldn’t be allowed to put that much space between the risers if you were building a house, but the industry seems to think we can put two stairs in.”

When spec’ing new trucks, Rhodes said she’s looking for the most ergonomic design possible, and that includes seemingly trivial considerations such as the location of the cup holder.

Tom Boehler, director of safety with Erb Group of Companies, a fleet that runs 640 trucks and employs a mix of longhaul tractor-trailer and local straight truck drivers, told Truck News his company modifies equipment wherever possible to make it safer for drivers.

That includes drilling drainage holes in the floor of refrigerated trailers so runoff liquid doesn’t cause a slipping hazard. The company has installed stainless steel handles that pull out from the floor, giving a driver something extra to hold onto while climbing into the trailer. Straight trucks have had folding steps installed at the rear of the body and the company is in the process of installing more liftgates so drivers don’t have to climb up and down into the truck body as frequently.

Drivers have come up with their own inventive solutions as well. Boehler said drivers running straight trucks with roll-up doors have attached straps with mountaineering clasps onto the handles so they don’t have to jump to grab hold of the door handle.

At Erb, drivers also have the support of the company if they decide any manual lifting is too strenuous to do on their own. For the most part, gone are the days when a driver would heave a 150-lb quarter of beef over his shoulder and lug it into the receiver’s facility.

“We’ve set standards,” Boehler said. “If it’s too heavy, if the driver is not getting any help, call back to dispatch and we’ll call the consignee or the shipper and say we need help.”

Erb Group began educating its drivers about the risks of MSDs about 20 years ago and has gone from paying a WSIB surcharge for claims overages to being recognized as one of the industry’s leaders in injury prevention.

Heavy lifting aside, Erb has even explored solutions that minimize the impact of whole body vibration by purchasing several Bose Ride systems for drivers with severe back pain. Bose, applying the same technology that made its noise-cancelling headphones famous, has developed a seat that mutes the vibration and shock delivered through the seat and ultimately the driver. The seat won the 2010 Truck Writers of North America Technical Achievement Award, yet with a price tag of about $6,000 it was widely wondered if the seat would find a market.

It has found a market with Erb Group, which has been able to extend the driving careers of two of its drivers who were off work with long-term back injuries.

“Some of our guys are getting to be 28, 29 years (with the company) and they’re starting to see problems such as degenerative discs in their backs,” Boehler explained. “We had a 28-year employee who could only drive one day a week and his back would get so irritated that he couldn’t drive for the rest of the week.”

Boehler came across Bose at a trade show and decided to pilot test three seats, one of which was for the driver who was off work with back pain.

“He’s back to running four or five days a week now,” Boehler said. “He’s very limited on handbombing, but at least he’s driving and he’s not irritating his back.”

But what about the cost of the seat?

“Over a three-year period, I would have accumulated a $369,000 lost time injury claim through WSIB and we get fairly substantial rebates throughout the year that may have been jeopardized,” Boehler said. “When I look at a $6,000 seat versus a $369,000 lost time injury claim, it’s cheap.”


Affordable solutions

While equipment may not always be designed to a driver’s liking, the professional driver has the ability to take some control over his or her own destiny, Skinner pointed out. Many MSD-type injuries can be avoided through lifestyle modifications and proper stretching.

“They have to take care of themselves,” Skinner said of drivers. “They have to understand that if they sit for long periods of time, they need to stretch or take a few minutes to get themselves limbered up before starting to handbomb freight.”

Skinner also advised drivers to use the tools they have available to them, including grab handles and king pin release cheaters.

“We measured the amount of force and it was nearly 200 lbs of force you need to pull some of those pins,” Skinner said, adding the handles are also difficult to reach, putting the body in an awkward position and heightening the risk of injury.

Drivers who are overweight should honestly assess their ability to do the job, Weston advised. “Are you physically capable of doing the job?” He pointed out recovery time increases for drivers who are older or out of shape, so they may want to seek a job in which they’ll be less likely to incur an MSD injury in the first place.

Fleets can reduce the risk of injury to their drivers by ensuring landing gear and fifth wheels are well oiled.

“We see trailers that are sitting for months on end and all of a sudden they’re put back into service and they’re not greased properly,” Skinner said. “It can take a huge amount of force to raise and lower the landing gear, but a well-lubed crank system is fine, you’ll have no problems.”

Skinner said fleets running older equipment should examine the condition of the driver’s seat and replace it when it becomes worn out. Locating trailer gladhands within reach from the ground can allow a driver to make the connections without climbing up onto the catwalk. Fleets should also aspire to provide their drivers with a clean, safe area in which to do their pre-trip inspections.

Drivers in pickup-and-delivery applications should be provided with sturdy handcarts with large wheels, Skinner suggested. Finally, he suggested trucking companies take advantage of the training resources that are available to them through safety organizations and WCB/WSIB agencies. Fo
r its part, IHSA offers a one-day MSD awareness course developed for managers and supervisors, which covers the common causes of MSD injuries and how to avoid them. To date, only about 150 people from the trucking industry have taken the course over the five years it’s been offered, Skinner pointed out.

“It’s almost like our industry has thrown up its hands and said ‘We can’t do anything about this’,” he added. The cost of doing nothing, however, can be substantial. As long as the trucking industry contributes an above average share of the cost of MSD-related injuries, WSIB and WCB will continue to increase the premiums trucking companies pay. In many provinces, trucking companies that reduce or eliminate lost time injuries receive a rebate while those who fare worse than the industry average pay surcharges.

Developing an MSD training and awareness program can deliver a tangible return on investment. But perhaps more importantly than that, Rhodes concludes philosophically, “There’s the sense of just feeling good that people aren’t being injured needlessly at work. That’s a big one for me. I don’t want to be hurt myself and I don’t want someone else being hurt.”

SIDEBAR: Driving home the message

BADEN, Ont. — Summon a group of seasoned drivers to a safety meeting on how to safely climb in and out of their truck cabs and you will likely hear a collective groan that’s louder than the rumbling of a thousand diesel engines.

So how does a trucking company address the important, if seemingly mundane, issue of ergonomics and MSD injury prevention without ostracizing its drivers? For Tom Boehler, director of safety with Erb Group of Companies, the key has been to tailor the message specifically to the company’s own operations.

Erb uses videos of its own drivers to highlight the dos and don’ts of safely entering and exiting the cab, which resonates with drivers on a deeper level than stock footage of strangers.

“We try to use as much Erb-related video footage and Erb-related content as we can, so it’s not like they’re watching someone from Arkansas that’s jumping out of a truck,” Boehler said. “It’s all geared towards Erb people with Erb trucks and it’s actual incidences that happened, so they can relate to it that way.”

Boehler also has found success in demonstrating to drivers the true costs of a lost time injury by showing them how many loads the company will essentially have to haul “for free” to cover the cost of the injury. For instance, a $1,000 lost time injury claim or $1,000 paid out in modified duties that’s not generating any revenue may require the company to haul an extra 18 or 19 loads of product just to cover the cost of that seemingly minor claim.

“When you portray it in the amount of freight they have to haul to make up for what they think is a small claim, it brings back the reality to the driver,” Boehler said. “They realize this costs them somewhere down the line; it may affect raises or bonuses or whatnot.”

Erb also uses real-life examples of injuries that have befallen its drivers as cautionary tales that will hopefully eliminate future occurrences. In one instance, a driver wearing cowboy boots was permanently injured when he slipped on ice at a customer’s facility.

That incident serves as a sobering reminder to other drivers of the importance of wearing proper footwear with adequate tread, especially in the winter months.

Finally, Boehler suggested keeping meetings short and to the point. An hour-long safety meeting on ergonomics on a sunny Saturday afternoon in August is not the most effective way to leave a lasting impression.

“We may have a safety meeting with drivers on proper carrying, tailgate operations and we’ll go into lifting, bending and carting but we try not to draw it out for long periods of time,” Boehler said. “We keep it to 10 minutes and keep it rolling throughout the year. An hour-long meeting can get pretty dry.”

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  • 15 yr ago and ongoing, my employer’s dr. damaged me for life, it returned me to reg. duty the next day he diagnosed me with severe sprain, no lifting more than 10 pds. three wks of therapy, and produced a diferent record after the fact,