- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

GREEN BAY, Wis.

Truck drivers have one of the most dangerous jobs in America, accounting for nearly 15 percent of U.S. work-related deaths. And that’s only counting the accidents.

They are also more at risk than average Americans for a number of health problems. Obesity is rampant. Many don’t bother to wear seat belts. About one in four have sleep apnea. Half of them smoke.

The latest research in an upcoming report drives home those points and could influence government regulations for truck drivers’ health, which are under review. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is considering tightening its rules for conditions including diabetes and high blood pressure. Many trucking companies are coming up with their own efforts at improving health.

“It takes a while to undo years and years and years of unhealthy behavior,” said Christie Cullinan of the American Trucking Associations, which represents about 2,000 companies and suppliers. “But I think companies are having to look at this because of the skyrocketing health care costs and related workers’ compensation costs.”

Drivers are tested every two years to maintain their licenses. Waivers can be granted, but generally, commercial drivers can’t be licensed if they have severe high blood pressure or severe heart conditions. Other aspects of drivers’ health, such as weight and smoking, aren’t regulated.

“They can’t say, ‘You can’t be obese’, and they can’t force you to stop smoking,” said Gerald P. Krueger, a psychologist who compiled the latest research by the Transportation Research Board. “The government shouldn’t regulate that. But we’ve been trying to educate people to the linkage between being a healthy person and a safe driver.”

Mr. Krueger said trucking companies need to do more to foster better health among their employees, whether it’s to reduce health care costs or hang onto employees in an industry in which turnover is high and driver shortages are growing.

An Associated Press spot check of companies revealed these initiatives:

c Celadon Group Inc. has stationed nurses at its main facility in Indianapolis and encourages its 3,200 drivers in the U.S. and Canada to get blood pressure and cholesterol checks. Doctors are on call if needed, and Celadon pays all expenses. The company says these efforts have helped trim its $10 million annual health care bill.

c Melton Truck Lines Inc. replaced sodas in the Tulsa, Okla., headquarters vending machines with green tea, water and diet drinks. The company also offered a 12-week weight-loss program.

c Con-way Freight of Ann Arbor, Mich., saw annual workers” compensation claims plunge 80 percent and lost workdays drop 75 percent in Los Angeles after its trial of a wellness program two years ago. Now the program is expanding to other hub offices.

c Schneider National Inc. of Green Bay, Wis., screened 10,000 of its 15,000 drivers for apnea, a disorder that interferes with breathing during sleep and can leave the sufferer groggy and exhausted. The company provided the 10 percent who had the disorder with special air masks to help them sleep.

William Rundle is one of the drivers for Schneider National who benefited from his company’s aggressive effort to treat sleep apnea.

“It”s wonderful to be able to function during the day now,” he said, adding that he has more energy and makes his deliveries on time. He said his company has also persuaded him to quit smoking and eat better.

In the past year, he has trimmed 15 pounds from his formerly 300-pound, 5-foot-7 frame. It”s difficult, he said. He wants to exercise but counts few safe places to walk close to the highway.

“You don”t see very many truck drivers that look like they”re in good shape. We”re just like anybody else,” said Mr. Rundle, 43, who lives in Woodbourne, N.Y.

Schneider has worked to improve drivers” health for the past seven years. Twice a year, the company takes a “discomfort” survey on driving ergonomics and aches and pains. Physical therapists follow up with drivers to address problems before they become severe.

Some drivers are responding to the health campaigns, working out at loading stations, cooking for themselves and even walking laps around their rigs. (Thirty-two times around an 18-wheeler is a mile.)

Sammy Belvin, a driver for Melton Truck Lines, has been getting advice from a wellness coordinator with the Oklahoma company. He carries weights in his truck and cooks chicken breasts on an electric grill in his cab.

Lisa Miles, an independent driver based in Fort Wayne, Ind., lifts weights in the cabin of her semi, too, while her partner takes the wheel. She gave up smoking three years ago and is trying to lose 30 pounds.

“It’s real easy to let your personal health be the last of your priorities,” she said.

As many as half of truck drivers are regular smokers, compared with about one-fifth of all Americans. Many truckers are obese, and only about one in 10 get regular aerobic exercise. More details will be available in a soon-to-be-published study for the Transportation Research Board, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Sleep apnea, which is linked to obesity, is rampant, too. An industry study a few years ago found 28 percent of drivers suffered from the disorder compared with 4 percent of the general population.

Government numbers say truckers suffer more fatalities than any other occupation, accounting for nearly 15 percent of all worker deaths in 2005, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those trucker deaths, 80 percent involved traffic accidents, the bureau said.

Truck drivers also report more injuries, such as sprains, than workers in any other category, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Many of them unload the goods they carry, risking back injuries.

The medical review board of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will discuss updating medical guidelines at a meeting this month, but any changes are at least a year away, officials said.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters union wants to make sure that truckers don”t lose their jobs if health rules are tightened, said Lamont Byrd, director of safety and health for the union.

“We see some real changes coming down the pipe that suggests the bar may be raised,” he said.

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