When I talk to managers about handling operating costs for light and medium fleets, we usually discuss things like fuel prices, new versus used truck prices, maintenance costs, driver and mechanic wages, and insurance premiums. Rarely, if ever, do we talk about healthcare.

Well, I think it may be time to add healthcare issues to the fleet manager's plate. I know, I know — you're already overloaded with a ton of concerns, not the least of which is coping with the current economic recession. But healthcare is one of those invisible costs that is hidden in the “wages and benefits” section of your operating budget.

Not a big deal, you say? Consider this: Wages and benefits make up the No. 2 operating expense for most fleets, right after fuel (No. 1) and right before tires (No. 3).

Right now that “wages and benefits” column is on the rise — and not just because driver and mechanic pay has been increased to combat chronic labor shortages in both areas. Health insurance premiums are going up, too — perhaps by as much as 15% this year. That's after an 8% jump in 2000 and an 11% jump last year.

According to Lewis Sandy, exec.-vp of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health-focused philanthropy, healthcare in the U. S. accounts for $1.5 trillion of the national economy, or nearly 14% of GDP. Healthcare is one of the “thorniest of all national issues” to resolve, adds Sandy, because of the political and emotional concerns it generates.

But there's another reason healthcare costs should be more prominent on our radar screens. Much of the driver, mechanic, and fleet manager population is graying, which means higher medical costs.

And don't think hiring younger people is a sure solution. The Surgeon General reported recently that there's been a huge surge in obesity among children and young adults. This comes with a big price tag because overweight people are twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes, 50% more likely to get heart disease, and 86% more likely to get colon cancer.

There's more strenuous activity involved in working with trucks — whether on the road or in the shop — than many people realize.

For drivers, this may mean long stretches of sitting behind the wheel followed by intense periods of activity when cargo has to be loaded or unloaded. For mechanics, it means bursts of bending, twisting and other strenuous body contortions throughout the day.

And if your employees aren't in good shape to begin with, work-related injuries are even more likely. All of which translates into higher health care costs.

But there are some things you can do to keep your employees, and your bottom line, healthier. Encourage your employees to get regular physicals to screen for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc. Since diet plays such a big role in health, you should make sure your vending machines carry healthy snacks. You can also make it easier for employees to get regular exercise by putting a workout room on the premises.

Japanese companies used to be the butt of a lot of jokes because of their penchant for staging mass morning stretching exercises for employees at the start of the workday. Turns out they were ahead of the curve.

Healthy employees are in a much better position to meet the physical demands of the job without getting sick or injured.

Helping them get healthy and stay there will ultimately help reduce your health-care costs, too. That's certainly not a bad thing.