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Often-overlooked physical demands of the trucking industry and changing demographics are factors driving safety issues that are growing more acute as the improving economy increases demand for truck drivers.
The rate at which private-sector heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers miss work due to injury and illness is rising while all other industry sectors are on the decline, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data released last month.
Aside from obvious perils such as accidents with other vehicles, truckers are more likely to suffer slips, trips and falls than most other categories in the private-sector workforce, BLS data shows. “It appears that the small amount of time truckers spend entering and exiting their vehicles and securing loads puts them at an increased risk for slips, trips and falls,” said Woody Hill, Austin, Texas-based vice president of safety services at workers compensation insurer Texas Mutual Insurance Co.
Kevin Burch, Dayton, Ohio-based president of Jet Express Inc., said the regional trucking company had an increase in falls last year.
“We went through a nasty winter here last year and saw people slip while walking to the back of the trailer to make sure the lights were working or just walking to get into the truck,” Mr. Burch said. “Also, many of the lots where we do business don't have the best lighting, so we are teaching our drivers to use more caution.”
Caroline Smith, Olympia, Washington-based epidemiologist and director of the Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention program for the Washington Department of Labor and Industries, said accidents that occur outside a truck are understandable given the vigilance truckers must maintain on the road.
“Truckers will drive for hours and then they have to get out of their cab, often to unload heavy stuff” in an area that is often outside their control, she said. “Most workplace accidents are preventable, but unfortunately, trucking is complicated because truckers do not have complete control over their worksite or even the pace of their work.”
Brian Hammer, Des Moines, Iowa-based senior transportation consultant at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. and transportation practice special administrator for the American Society of Safety Engineers, said many trucker injuries occur when drivers are in unfamiliar surroundings.
“Truck driving involves hours of sitting followed by sudden physical exertion, so we've seen a lot of accidents occur when somebody has to stop a truck midjourney to resecure a tarp or tighten straps,” he said.
One factor contributing to the injury rate uptick is an influx of new drivers as trucking companies raise wages to meet growing demand and overcome a persistent driver shortage, Mr. Hill said.
“We are tending to get a lot of younger, inexperienced drivers being put on the road,” Mr. Hill said, noting that the energy boom has made demand for drivers in Texas especially acute. “You have people that might have just recently been school teachers now being put into Class B vehicles, such as salt and water trucks, in order to serve the oil and gas industry.”
Another factor affecting trucking industry injuries is the age of the workforce, Mr. Hill said, citing a 2011 American Trucking Association study that found the median age of a driver was 47 years old.
“Some trucking companies have certain expectations around the speed of loading and unloading a truck, which tends to have an impact on older operators,” he said.
Experts say there are operational, educational and ergonomic steps that risk managers can take to keep workers safe.
Ms. Smith said Washington state, which has had its Trucking Injury Reduction Emphasis program since 2006, recently published a suite of simulation training tools to help educate drivers. “The safety training at truck driving schools is often incomplete, so companies will need to reinforce safety with new employees and also examine how their own internal policies are structured to see if there is anything that would cause drivers to rush or skip meals or exhibit unhealthy behaviors,” she said.
“Larger trucking companies are instituting wellness and fitness programs and looking at fitness trackers like Fitbit to record driver steps each day,” Mr. Hammer said. “However, most of the trucking is done by independents and small and local trucking companies that haven't yet got on the bandwagon.”
Tom DiSalvi, Green Bay, Wisconsin-based director of safety and loss prevention at trucking company Schneider National Inc., which has more than 11,100 company drivers, said the firm takes great care when hiring drivers and reinforces safety training quarterly.
“When you are hiring drivers, you have to have clear standards in place and make sure new drivers meet those qualifications,” Mr. DiSalvi said. “In addition to making sure that drivers are fully qualified, we go one step further and conduct physical function tests to make sure they can physically do the work, because this is a much more physical job than people realize.”