Fitting truck seats to truck drivers If we could assure driver comfort and safety, reduce worker's compensation claims, and extend seat replacement cycles, we'd be willing to pay two and a half times what we pay now for truck seats," says Duke Drinkard, vp of field maintenance for Southeastern Freight Lines. And he means it.

The major problem, of course, is that drivers vary more widely than truck seats and comfort is so subjective. "If you want to get vehicle seating right, you have to start with the human body and work out," explains Mac Reynolds, president of ERL, LLC-a spin-off company from Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine operating under license from the university. The new company provides a software package that can be used in designing cab interiors in relationship to the location and adjustment of seats so that drivers are in a safe and comfortable posture while they work. It's not a simple task.

"Our model was developed specifically for seated work stations," he says. "There are more than 150 variables to consider. Essentially, you have to be able to support the driver in his or her preferred posture and in other postures in a specific seat in a specific vehicle. That's very difficult. You may have a nice seat, but one that's just not right for that driver in that cab.

The comfort quest "Designing truck seating is a balancing act that has to take into account many variables, among the driver population and among the vehicles," agrees Jeff Walters, truck product manager for National Seating. "It is almost always a compromise. A seat is a very personal commodity because we are all so different, and each cab design presents a unique set of requirements. Customers also make compromises between desirable features and cost."

For many fleets, attempting to get "just the right seat" has largely become a matter of spec'ing up. "Eight years ago, a typical fleet seat was low-backed, with vinyl upholstery and no features," recalls Walters. "Now, driver retention has become such an important concern that fleets are spec'ing seats with many more comfort features, like high backs and lumbar support. About half of the OEMs we serve have already moved up to our new 2000 Series ergonomically designed seat as standard."

"Beginning in the early 1990s, we started seeing a definite trend toward higher-end seats with more comfort- and safety-related features," offers Andrew Kemp, sales manager-aftermarket for Knoedler. "Our average seat sale price has increased 20%, even though our prices have increased just 3% over the same time period."

"We're seeing a trend toward more premium seats in fleets as well as with owner-operators," says Debra Moore, central regional manager for Bostrom Seating. "Many fleets and owner-operators are willing to spend almost twice as much on seats as they were two years ago."

Fleets and owner-operators also have more seating choices at all price points than they did in years past. "Ten years ago, seats all tended to be on a par with one another," observes Kemp. "Today, there are more manufacturers, more seat designs, and more options and features to choose from."

One of the newest options is not from a seating company at all, but from Freightliner Trucks. The company's proprietary EzyRider seat went into production this spring and is standard in Freightliner's Century Class S/T, Argosy, and Columbia Class 8 trucks.

"We started working on our own seat design two or three years ago," Ramin Younessi, director of product marketing, says. "The pneumatically controlled seat is truly integrated into the cab. For example, we measured the noise and vibration coming into the truck cab floor and then designed the seat base with a parallel arm suspension and mid-frequency vibration damper to reduce noise and vibration before it even reaches the seat." The seat is being manufactured to Freightliner specifications by Sears Seating.

GRA-MAG Truck Interior Systems is perhaps the newest entrant to the truck seat marketplace. According to Paul Haelterman, vp-sales and marketing, the company (a joint venture between Magna International and Grammer A.G. of Germany) was formed about a year ago specifically to serve the North American truck market. They already have seat contracts with two OEMs, says Haelterman, and the company's field sales force will begin calling on U.S. fleets this July.

"Through our parent corporation, we have an in-house bio-sciences group," he notes. "They have been instrumental in the development of our line of seats." One feature of the new seating systems Haelterman believes drivers will find most appealing is the Climate Control system.

"The Climate Control system will actually circulate air behind and under drivers, but so subtly that they won't feel the air moving; they'll just feel cooler and more comfortable," he says. "Our premium-level seats will use sensors and smart materials to totally fit themselves to the driver."

GRA-MAG and Sears Seating, along with other companies, participated with the U.S. Air Force in a project to create a new database of human dimensions to update a study done by the military in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Haelterman, Project Caesar digitally scanned 6,000 people. "The worker population has become much more diverse," he says. "Thanks to the new digital information, we can also do things like create 3-D models to help us make seats that are truly comfortable for a much wider range of people."

While better metrics, advanced technologies, and the growing range of seating options are good news for fleets and their drivers, companies determined to find comfortable and ergonomic seating at a price point the equipment budget will bear eventually come down to questions of process and criteria. How do we select the best seat(s) for all our drivers? And how do we know when we've done the right thing, particularly for drivers with health problems?

"Talk to your drivers," recommends Bruce Lyons, director of marketing for Roho Inc., manufacturer of the EDT air-inflated seat cushion overlay designed to enhance comfort by improving blood circulation. "Then let them test different products. It's a slow process, but it's the only way to know what you're really getting."

"Road testing is very critical," adds Kemp. "Unless you actually do miles, you won't know what works. Some seats feel great in the showroom, but you don't really learn about what's comfortable and what's not until you're on the road all day in that seat in that truck cab."

Stuart Flatow, director of occupational safety and health for the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), agrees. "I would certainly advise fleets to survey their drivers," he says. "I would also suggest that they take a hard look at driver productivity, medical records, workers' compensation claims, insurance costs, and liability. It is also important to watch new technologies and to participate in industry organizations like The Maintenance Council (TMC) to stay current and involved."

You also have to know your seating options, according to Douglas LeRoy, account manager-sales and marketing for Lord Corp. The company makes the Motion Master Ride Management System, a patented shock absorber and control unit utilizing magnetic fluid to actively manage ride quality in response to changing levels of shock and vibration.

"Technologies like ours are buried in seating options from different manufacturers," he explains. "Drivers may say, 'This is a great seat, I never bottom out,' but not know exactly what it is about the seat that makes it perform the way it does."

Josh Justman, sales manager for the aftermarket division of Seats Inc., and Renee Johnson, director of sales and marketing, for Comfort Ride USA both agree. "You have to look at how a product is made," Johnson says. "Look at the suspension and the cushions as well as the controls and the overall design. A lot of the ride, comfort, and safety characteristics in a seat come from the suspension, not the cushion."

"The most important things to look for are overall product quality, reliability, and comfort," adds Ron Mock, director of marketing for Sears Seating.

Prescribing seats Even if a fleet does its homework, selecting the best seat for every driver can still be problematical.

"Drivers sometimes go to a doctor or chiropractor and then come back to work saying they need a different seat. That doesn't really tell me anything," says Duke Drinkard.

"Exactly what does the driver need to solve his or her particular problem? Where does the support need to be? The industry needs a way to define seating problems and solutions, a way to write a prescription, so that we don't have to pay for something that may or may not work," he notes. "A seat that is comfortable right away, for instance, might actually be bad for someone with a spinal injury. Right now, there's no good way to tell."

Seat prescriptions are not an entirely new concept. "Doctors have literally prescribed our seats, and insurance companies have sometimes even paid for them," says Johnson. "In fact, some drivers almost consider Comfort Ride to be a 'medical' seat. We do test seat programs with fleets where they give drivers with injuries or complaints our seat to try. In some cases, using the seat has enabled drivers to return to work sooner than they could have otherwise."

According to LeRoy, Lord Corp.'s Motion Master Ride Management System, installed in a Bostrom seat, has also been prescribed for an injured driver. Dr. Ron Moon, medical director at the Industrial Athlete, a physical medicine and rehabilitation clinic, wrote a prescription specifying a seating system that would accommodate the driver's requirements, recalls LeRoy. Kenworth of Birmingham and Bostrom Seating worked with the medical team to review seating options, eventually installing a Bostrom seat with the Motion Master System in the driver's truck.

Bruce Lyons at Roho has similar stories to tell. "The basis of our technology is the medical market," he says. "Our cushion was originally developed thirty years ago for patients who were confined to wheelchairs. Now the cushion has actually been prescribed for truck operators. We are currently doing testing with Engineering Solutions to see what this could do for worker's compensation rates," he adds.

"The idea of prescription seats is theoretically possible, and there's a lot of merit to it," says ATA's Flatow. "I would hate to see doctors start making seat determinations from behind their desks because it could have ramifications on the whole fleet. However, if the industry itself were to create a system for describing the characteristics of various seats, as a practical matter not to comply with regulations, that could be useful."

Flatow has had plenty of opportunity to think about truck seating since the ATA began its dialogue with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) over its proposed ergonomics regulation. "The OSHA rulemaking proposal includes whole body vibration," he says, "and the documentation attached to it specifically refers to over-the-road truck driving. So while trucks are not named in the text of the actual regulation, drivers could claim that they are covered by the standards.

"It is not a difficult stretch to see that the industry could be looking at seat modifications pretty much across the board," he adds. "The regulation would really put OSHA in the cab of the truck. We're fighting against this, but the possibility still exists that it could happen."

An industry-driven initiative to "self-certify" truck seats in the absence of any new federal regulations could also happen, but for purely practical reasons. "Instead of OSHA testing seats, we could do it ourselves," says Knoedler's Kemp. "A tag could say, 'this seat is suitable for' -- and describe the dimensional range of people it fits, as well as any particular health problems the seat is designed to address, such as low back pain."

Imagine a cross-disciplinary team - perhaps comprised of seat and truck makers, insurance companies, medical professionals, test labs, and universities - working together to create Duke Drinkard's "way of defining seating needs." It might just be part of the prescription for achieving that most elusive of all characteristics - driver comfort.

Here are reader service numbers and/or web addresses for suppliers of truck seats, seat components, and auxiliary systems. Seat makers may also source parts and components - such as cushions, shocks, or suspensions - from other companies also on this list.

Amobi Inc., Amos, Quebec, www.amobi-seats.com

Bostrom Seating, Piedmont, Ala., www.bostromseating.com

Comfort Ride USA, Eden Prairie, Minn., www.comfortride.com

Freightliner Trucks, Portland, Ore., www.freightlinertrucks.com

GRA-MAG, Novi, Mich., www.gramagintsys.com

Isringhausen, Battle Creek, Mich., www.isri.com

Knoedler, Battle Creek, Mich., www.knoedler.com

Kustom Fit, South Gate, Calif., www.kustomfit.com

Lord Corp., Cary, N.C., www.motion-master.com

National Seating, Vonroe, Tenn., www.nationalseating.com

Recaro North America, Clawson, Mich., www.recaro.com

Relaxor, Bellflower, Calif., www.relaxor.com

Roho Inc., Belleville, Ill., www.rohoinc.com

Seats Inc., Reedsburg, Wisc., www.seatsinc.com

Schukra of North America, Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada

Sears Seating, Davenport, Iowa, www.searsseating.com

The Wise Co., Piggott, Ariz.

USSC Inc., West Conshohocken, Pa., www.usscgroup.com

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