While Congress has suspended more stringent rules on truck driver rest periods pending an in-depth study, the overall question of truck driver health remains a front burner issue in the industry.
A report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released earlier this year showed that 69 percent of the long-haul truck drivers surveyed were obese, and 27 percent reported no moderate or vigorous physical activity for 30 minutes in the preceding seven days.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that to improve health, adults 18 to 64 should get two hours and 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, such as brisk walking, or one hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous activity like jogging, in addition to muscle-strengthening activities two or more days per week.
According to a recent study of more than 1,600 drivers published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, long-distance commercial truck drivers are more than twice as likely to have diabetes (14.4 percent vs. 6.8 percent nationally) and are more than twice as likely to smoke (50.7 percent vs. 18.9 percent). More troubling, 68.9 percent of drivers are classified as being obese and 17.4 percent as being morbidly obese, vs. 30.5 percent and 7.3 percent of the nation as a whole.
Truck drivers are at increased risk of musculoskeletal problems, like back pain, as well as psychiatric illness. And, in terms of access to health care, more needs to be done -- 18.3 percent have delayed or did not receive care and 80.2 percent did not receive a flu shot.
Driver health issues lead to higher costs – more than $1,700 per year compared to around $1,000 for the average worker, mostly from increased hospitalizations and need for specialist care. As a result, out-of-pocket expenses and premiums for both drivers and their employers are up to 70 percent higher than the general population in spite of lower access to health information and wellness programs. These excess costs are not only a strain on drivers, but lead to higher costs for goods transported by truck.
Some companies, large and small, have launched health and wellness campaigns designed for truck drivers. Schneider National offers health risk assessments and treatments for its drivers, such as for sleep apnea, while JB Hunt offers a wellness program that encompasses individualized medical examinations and health coaching. Con-way Freight uses a health risk assessment and wellness coaches to help its drivers get on the road to health. Finally, travel centers that long-distance commercial truck drivers frequent have started offering fitness rooms and health information kiosks at their facilities, and retail health clinics are looking to co-locate at the travel centers.
NIOSH recommends the following practices for truck drivers:
• Stick to the same bedtime and wake time every day, even on the weekends. This helps regulate the body’s clock and could help drivers fall asleep and stay asleep for the night.
• Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. A relaxing, routine activity right before bed conducted away from bright lights helps to separate sleep time from activities that can cause excitement, stress, or anxiety and make it more difficult to fall—and stay—asleep.
• Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon. Power napping may help you get through the day, but can making fall asleep at bedtime more difficult.
• Exercise daily. Vigorous exercise is best, but even light exercise can help.
• Evaluate your room. Your bedroom should be dark, cool, and free from any noise that can disturb your sleep. Check your room for noises or other distractions.
• Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows. The mattress you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy—about 9 or 10 years for most good-quality mattresses. Get comfortable pillows and make the room inviting for sleep, but also free of allergens and trip hazards.
• Use bright light to help manage your circadian rhythms. Avoid bright light in the evening, and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning to keep your circadian rhythms in check.
• Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening. Eating big or spicy meals can cause discomfort from indigestion that can make it hard to sleep. Try to finish eating at least 2–3 hours before bedtime.
• Wind down. The body needs time to shift into sleep mode, so spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity like reading.
"While I wouldn't advise people to choose their career based on this, it's really no surprise that truck drivers top the list or that office workers chained to their desks have more issues with overweight and obesity," said Lona Sandon, a registered dietician and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas.
"The work environment definitely can affect one's health," she said. "Employers who make an effort to encourage and make accessible physical activity and healthy eating can make a difference -- not just to their worker's waistline, but also to their bottom line. A worker who's healthy is a worker who's more productive."