OLIVER NAIDOO, certification manager at JC Auditors, discusses the health and well-being of long-distance truck drivers.

Driving heavy vehicles is probably one of the most stressful jobs in South Africa, especially considering the many challenges on the road. These include high traffic volumes, poor roads in some parts of the county, inadequate or ineffective law enforcement and a general lack of compliance by road users.

Truck drivers are continually under pressure to be on the go and make those deliveries despite the many constraints and challenges they face.

Truck drivers, especially long-distance drivers, have quite unpredictable routines with associated irregular sleeping patterns, while often relying on a truck stop “pie and chips special” to keep them going. Unlike people in most regular jobs, a driver can’t exactly have a leg stretch, or step out for a break or quick chat with a colleague to break the monotony.

In addition, truck drivers need to constantly focus and can’t hit the “undo” or “delete” key if they make a mistake. In fact, a single mistake by a truck driver can – and often does – have severe consequences on the road.

There are many factors that play a direct role in a truck driver’s ability to be safe, compliant and efficient on a public road. One of the crucial factors is driver health and wellness, which is too often not given the attention that it deserves.

Transport companies that incorporate driver health and wellness into their operational processes minimise their risk and enhance their sustainability. Fleets are likely to see a reduction in accident rates, which limits the likelihood of injuries and fatalities, lowers operating costs, improves morale and protects the company brand.

There is very little formal research in South Africa on the impact of driver health and wellness on heavy-vehicle crashes and incidents. There are, however, some quite interesting and often alarming research results from other countries.

Once such study, led by investigators at the School of Medicine at the University of Utah, in the United States, found that commercial truck drivers with three or more medical conditions have a double to quadruple chance of being in a crash when compared to healthier drivers.

This study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also found that two specific indicators of poor health management – high pulse pressure (a blood-pressure measurement) and fatigue – were “highly associated” with truckers’ crash risk (as was the use of cellphones while driving.)

This research also highlighted a core underlying matter: truck driver health is not well managed. Nearly 24 percent of the 797 long-haul truckers surveyed were found to have high blood pressure that had not previously been diagnosed and which was not being treated medically.

The researchers also found that (as in previous studies) 62 percent of the drivers were obese – compared to 35 percent of the general adult population, according to the Centre for Disease Control.

The situation in South African is no different and may even be a lot worse. The conservative estimate is that there are 500 000 active heavy-vehicle drivers in South Africa, of which an estimated 100 000 are in the extra-heavy category involved in long-distance trips.

If one considers the percentage of drivers in this population that could have unmanaged or undiagnosed chronic illnesses, then there is, indeed, cause for alarm. In addition to these health concerns (especially management of drivers with chronic illnesses), the risks related to driver wellness (such as inadequate nutrition, sleep, fatigue management and lack of exercise) are severely neglected in our country.

Many believe that the lack of attention to driver health and wellness is a significant contributing factor to the high accident rate in South Africa. So, what can transporters do to mitigate the risks associated with driver health and wellness?

The development of a structured driver health and wellness programme is essential to address the identified risks. Such a programme should make provision for medical screening, management of chronic illnesses (including training), alcohol and drug screening, driver fatigue management and defined wellness training initiatives.

The Road Transport Management System (RTMS) is a South African national standard (SANS 1395), that, among other requirements, provides guidance on driver health and wellness. This can be referred to when developing a wellness programme.

To ensure that a wellness programme is as effective and successful as possible, it is important to align it with drivers’ needs. Find out from drivers what is important to them and what challenges they are struggling with when it comes to health and wellness. Involve them as much as possible when developing a programme, so that they feel a sense of ownership and accountability.

It is also important to create an environment that allows drivers to communicate feedback, questions, concerns and any additional needs they feel are important.

Drivers are the backbone of the transport industry. Supporting their overall well-being will have a direct impact on the reduction of accidents and will improve the safety and sustainability of a road-transport business and, most importantly, create safer roads for all road users in our country.

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