No one ever said driving a truck was the easiest way to make a buck. But despite all the advances that truck makers have made and fleets have adopted to make trucks less dangerous, more productive, more comfortable and just plain more attractive places to work, there's still lots more that can be done to protect the general health of commercial truck operators.

That's the upshot of a report prepared by George S. Benjamin, M.D., medical director for loss prevention and managed care services for the insurance firm Liberty Mutual.

Right off the bat, the doctor points up a central irony of trucking that deeply influences driver health. “Trucking attracts as professional drivers people who prize independence and want control of their lives,” says Benjamin. “However, the reality of the situation is that the commercial trucking industry is fiercely competitive, creating an environment that can compromise independence and force drivers to overextend their capabilities.

Benjamin lists a “host of adverse conditions” drivers face that up their exposure to health risks:

Ergonomic hazards: Long hours behind the wheel lead to poor posture resulting in stiff muscles at best and overall physical “deconditioning” at worst. Engine and cab noise coupled with road noise account for significant hearing loss, and cab vibration causes back pain and fatigue.

Chemical hazards: Drivers are exposed to hazardous chemicals they haul as well as oil, engine exhaust and carbon monoxide. Studies have shown drivers suffer an increased incidence of lung, kidney and bladder cancers. However, Benjamin notes that the relative contributions that exhaust emissions and tobacco smoking make to these findings are controversial.

Lifestyle hazards: The unhealthy food choices confronting drivers, compounded by hours of limited physical activity, leads to obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease. Irregular work schedules contribute to sleep deprivation, as do the less-than-ideal conditions of sleeping in a sleeper. Drivers are also stressed by disrupted family lives.

So what can fleet managers do to help alleviate these problems? Besides spec'ing the safest, least-stressful equipment available, and being sensitive to the impact of scheduling and dispatching decisions on drivers, the doctor prescribes a healthy dose of education.

“While commercial driver-training programs address safety and ergonomic procedures thoroughly,” Benjamin points out, “only a fraction of these programs are devoted to topics such as diet and substance-abuse prevention. However, some carriers do offer health-education programs to their drivers, who participate in them when they report to or finish their duty tours.”

He says the health services provided drivers should include detailed advice on health care issues, including programs that emphasize both the prevention of illness and the treatment of identified health problems.

Benjamin also recommends that a driver-health program includes a way to refer employees with identified health problems to the appropriate health care specialists for further diagnosis and treatment.

A lot can be gained by following this doctor's orders. “Taking care of your drivers' health needs — and helping to ensure that they can take care of those needs themselves — creates a situation in which everyone wins,” Benjamin contends.

“It can also help fleets maintain their shipping schedules,” he adds. “And avoid the human and economic costs involved with work-related accidents and illnesses.”