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Health risks of working as a professional truck or bus driver

If you are practicing for your heavy vehicle licence you should consider also learning about how to reduce the potential long term health effects of being a professional heavy vehicle driver. Professional drivers are at risk of a large number of adverse health effects, almost all of which can be successfully avoided with the right knowledge and actions.

Professional driving is a job which can require shift work in polluted environments in a sedentary position that is subject to noise and vibration all while you are under time pressure to make a delivery or reach the next passenger stop in time. In short, it’s not exactly perfect for maintaining good health.

Stress

As traffic gradually gets worse and worse, schedules need to be adjusted so that drivers can realistically make their deliveries or pickups without stress. Advanced GPS systems can reroute traffic around obstacles and traffic bottlenecks, but not all drivers use these.

Shift work

Shift work causes stress on the body. Your physical health can suffer considerably from shift work because of sleep deprivation which affects memory, mood, reaction time, concentration and attention. Constantly attempting to change your sleeping pattern fights against your body clock that influences your body temperature, hunger, hormone levels, sleepiness and alertness. Your body clock causes you to feel most sleepy between around midnight and 7am, and therefore this is also the most dangerous time to drive. This circadian rhythm also causes a period of sleepiness between 1pm to 4pm.

Shift workers tend to be continuously sleep deprived, often getting more than two hours less sleep per night than is required. Napping can help make this up, but long term shift work can cause sleep to be lighter, and eventually for it to become insomnia. If you have suffered from weight gain (which we cover below), you may also experience sleep apnoea.

When shifts change they ideally should change gradually and then stay on that shift for long enough that the body gets adjusted to it and can once again form a proper sleep habit. Shifts that change every few days are bad.

Nutrition and hydration

Shift work can cause disruption to meal times. Sleepiness can also increase appetite which leads to eating more, and ultimately weight gain. Also, the type of food that drivers tend to choose is not the best type of food. It’s hard to eat a salad on the run, but easy to eat a pie, yet vegetables are what we need. Couple this with often severe dehydration which can cause headaches, lack of concentration, stomach ulcers and there is a recipe for serious gastrointestinal issues long term. Dehydration can cause kidney stones and bladder infections.

Increases in weight comes with its own problems such as increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, both of which are more common in professional drivers.

Joint and muscle pain

Sitting for long periods causes muscle weakness in some areas and muscle stress in others. Over half of all professional drivers will report lower back pain at one time or another. Stiff shoulders and necks are common problems. These issues are caused by the body being unable to cope with the stresses put upon it. The body weakens over time and needs to be kept strong, therefore exercise is the only way to achieve this. A high baseline function in terms of fitness will reduce your chances of getting pain through driving.

Log Transport Safety Council’s Fit for the Road programme has some good general information around exercise for heavy vehicle drivers.

Excessive noise exposure

While this is more of an issue in very heavy machinery, trucks and buses can still be above 80dBA. Long term exposure to high volumes of sound are both tiring and damaging to hearing. High frequency hearing becomes dulled. Recommendations are that people should not be exposed to any more than 8 hours of sound at 85dBA per day, and this is considered the extreme case. It is preferable for cabin noise to be less than 70dBA, but this is next to impossible. A standard truck like a Scania sits at around 62dB when idling.

Wearing ear plugs for part of the day can help reduce noise exposure. Ear plugs come in different varieties and can be bought for as little as a couple of dollars from hardware stores.

Exposure to pollutants

When driving in the city, pollutant concentrations in the cab can reach levels that can have long term health effects. Bus drivers are constantly exposed to new air entering the bus when stopped. On busy routes, this air will be polluted. Long haul truck drivers fare better in that once out of urban areas fresher air can be channeled into the cab.

Within urban areas, however, there are nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and diesel particulates present in the air often in unsafe levels for long term exposure. This especially applies if you are loading or unloading with your engine idling, or when other vehicles are around you with their engines running.

Minimising the risks

  • Talk to a medical professional so that you can make a long-term plan
  • Try to avoid shift work if at all possible
  • Take  toilet and meal stops when you need them
  • Eat healthily – talk to a nutritionist to determine what’s right for you
  • Exercise to keep your body strong and avoid weight gain – talk to a personal trainer and/or physiotherapist to get exercises that will work
  • Work with your managers and employers to create schedules and rosters that are sensitive to drivers’ health and family time, are realistic and save fuel
  • Use ear plugs if you are experiencing a lot of noise exposure
  • If you are having problems sleeping, learn relaxation and meditation techniques
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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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Posted in Advice, Fleet, Heavy Vehicle
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