Sit Up and Pay Attention

by Passenger Service: State troopers ride-along with truckers in crash study

You don’t have to be a hyperactive fourth grader with ADD to know that being constricted to a seat for eight hours isn’t as easy as it looks.

Truckers, of course, are keenly aware that staying in a stationary position for long periods of time –interspersed with several physical tasks throughout the workday — can take a serious toll on the body.

There has been plenty of medical research on truck driver health and wellness, most of it is aimed at improving on-road safety by studying the effects of things like fatigue, cognition and drugs and alcohol usage.

Until recently however, there’s been little focus on strategies to address musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in long-haul truckers.

Though, two studies in particular — one by the University of Waterloo in collaboration with Transportation Health and Safety Association of Ontario (THSAO) and the other by Washington-based Atlas Ergonomics — recently took a closer look at the increase of both injuries and immense costs of MSDs in the trucking industry.

Both the Canadian and U.S. studies state that musculoskeletal disorders are the number-one reason for lost-time workers’ comp claims in the transport sector.

In Canada, MSD claims costs are pegged at $640 million and resulted in six million workdays lost, according to the U. of Waterloo-THSAO report.

Transportation and equipment operators specifically have the highest lost time and cost claims of all occupations (45 percent of total LTL claims and 35 percent of truckload). And the average cost of a lost time injury in general trucking is $42,693.

The Atlas Ergonomics study cites a 2008 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index that attempts to calculate the "total" cost of MSDs. The rule of thumb is that for every dollar of direct, medical or injury costs experienced, organizations probably spend a multiple of at least $3 to $5 more in indirect costs ranging from, to name just a few, production downtime and delays to increased administration and rehiring and retraining.

Things look only to get worse as the current North American driver pool gets older and, demographically, the replacement workforce, migrating mostly from other countries, tends to be already middle-aged.

"As we get older our strength goes down and our cardiovascular capability declines. So, we are challenged with counterbalancing against that," says Drew Bossen of Atlas Ergonomics.

First, though, the industry must acknowledge there’s a growing problem and examine some of the factors more closely.

To an outsider, truck driving can seem like a relatively stress- and pain-free job, at least in comparison to other physical occupations like, say, brick laying or the unlucky assistant who has to pick up Rosie O’Donnell’s groceries.

In actuality, though, trucking’s demands and long hours of exposure create what Bossen describes as a "perfect storm" for injuries.

The prevalence of MSDs, which mostly affect truck drivers’ lower back and shoulder joints, are often driven by over-exertion of heavy routine tasks such as cranking dollies, sliding the tandem, loading and unloading freight, securing loads, pre-trip inspections and pulling the fifth wheel. The latter activity, the Atlas study explains, can require pulling forces of up to 190 pounds.

Signs of trouble: Workers at risk of
back problems should be re-assigned

Stresses are exacerbated when short bursts of physical action interrupt long periods of inactivity. Anyone who works hunched in front of a computer for eight hours, for example, can probably tell a story of how his back seized up after a sudden, violent sneeze. Of course, truckers are exposed to bigger injury risks.

"On one hand," says Bossen, "a driver’s life can be described as relatively sedentary. You have the static posture of sitting, yes, but in addition drivers have this ­constant barrage of vibration, which degrades posture and puts increased pressures on the disc.

"So, there are a lot of things happening mechanically with long-term flex-rounded postures … where the disc is ballooning and bulging. Then, when you put a very high force of activity when your spine is still flexed, there’s absolutely an increased risk of injury."

Bossen recommends interspersing day-to-day activities around the truck with a bit of a warm-up or stretch.

"Don’t come out from a flexed, seated position where you’ve been exposed to physical vibration for six hours to immediately getting out and sliding the tandem."

To some degree, the industry can engineer many of these problems out of a truck, but technological advancements can also hinder progress if employers and the medical community do not simultaneously address health and wellness in the workforce.

On one hand, says Bossen, trucks are being built with more accessible entry and exits while cabs are becoming more spacious and comfortable with better positioning of components.

"But, the other side of it is that truck makers are preparing for a larger driver, which is good in some ways, but also means we’ve decided to accept it, which is not good."

SCREEN DOORS

Atlas Ergonomics says its customizable pre-work screening protocols are increasingly popular with trucking fleets that are trying to cut down on employee injury-related downtime and turnover.

The screening tool gives carriers the ability to measure the potential risk for injury of drivers by testing things like high force strength and cardiovascular fitness in relation to the tasks and activities required within the job.

This helps managers identify high-risk employees and, if needed, match them to less physically demanding routes more in line with their capabilities — from flatbed or tanker to linehaul van, perhaps — while also reducing the risk of hiring a new driver who’s arguably unfit for such work.

"I don’t know how many times I heard the comment, ‘I hired a guy who got hurt after two weeks,’" says Bossen.

Something else to consider: Screening for work fitness can also be a competitive advantage, says Bossen. "As more fleets adopt it, they’ll be turning away a certain percentage of applicants away.

"Those drivers are probably still going to be out getting work someplace else. So, the guy who isn’t screening is in the long run getting a higher risk workforce with a higher probability of injury."  

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