When the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) finalized mandatory standards for entry-level CDL holders, it wasn’t by accident that “driver wellness” training got added to the list.

FMCSA rolled a variety of training requirements into the new rules – addressing driver qualifications (medical as well as drug and alcohol testing), driver hours of service limitations, driver wellness and whistle-blower protection – that, in its estimation, would help improve highway safety.

“Clearly, the health of commercial truck drivers is a focus of ours going forward,” says Annette Sandberg, FMCSA’s chief administrator.

“What we are looking at is how we can translate medical data into standards that help improve safety on the highway,” she relates. “Now, we are not sure how this effort will pan out, but we do know conditions like fatigue not only have an impact on the health of a driver but on their capability to operate a vehicle. What’s clear is that we have to look at the driver as a key component of the overall truck – that we have to look at ways of improving their performance and capability so that, by extension, we improve truck safety.”

Gary Krueger, principle scientist & chief ergonomics researcher for the Vienna, VA-based Wexford Group consulting firm, says there is more concern being focused on how the health and wellness of truck drivers affects their job performance and work career.

“We’re finding that a focus on the entire ‘aura’ of wellness – exercise, proper diet and nutrition, and the elimination of smoking – can have a dramatic impact on a truck driver’s job performance,” Krueger states.

And by “performance” he means both conscious and unconscious responses. “For one, we find that people with a greater focus on health and wellness pay more attention to sleep discipline – they are far more aware of how important sleep is in terms of affecting job performance,” he said. “On another level, we’re finding health issues that impact truck driver performance, such as sleep apnea, are driven by fitness levels – apnea is more prevalent in those suffering from obesity.”

The Atlanta, GA-based American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), a research organization supported by the American Trucking Associations, is trying to raise the awareness about health and wellness among truck drivers as part of its effort to both study and reduce the effects of driver fatigue.

The physical fitness and overall health of the aging truck driver population in the U.S. is a growing concern among industry experts because fitness relates so strongly to job performance, contends Rebecca Brewster, ATRI’s president & CEO.

“Certainly, the more physically fit and healthy drivers are, the more alert and less fatigued they are,” she explains. “Being physically fit also makes them less susceptible to injury as an increased fitness level gives them more body strength and flexibility – critical aspects when loading and unloading trailers, for example.”

Yet the overall prognosis for truck drivers isn’t good. Brewster says that, according to recent research, 55% of truck drivers are overweight and more than 50% smoke, compared to national overall averages of 20.9% and 25%, respectively.

“Clearly, [drivers] have the final responsibility to eat right and exercise,” Brewster says. “But the stress out on the road, the lack of time to exercise, all contribute to the issue. My personal belief is that the industry must do what it takes to support ways to make drivers more fit and healthy -- because the bottom line impact for trucking cannot be ignored.”

A University of Pennsylvania study of truck drivers found over 17.6% of all CDL holders have some form of mild sleep apnea, 5.8% suffer from moderate apnea, and 4.7% have severe apnea.

“Sleep has a significant effect on a person’s well-being; persistent poor sleep can cause people to feel ‘out of touch’ with what’s going on in their lives,” points out Ellen Miller, MD, a sleep expert and clinical assistant professor of medicine at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Not getting enough sleep may lead to increased irritability, risk for depression, or weight gain. Recent evidence also suggests that persistent poor sleep, left untreated, may even cause more serious conditions.”

Dr. Miller says an analysis of comprehensive Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data on the behaviors and attitudes of more than a half million Americans found a strong correlation between an individual’s level of happiness and the amount of sleep or rest a person got each day. At the same time, no direct correlation was found between feeling happy and having a higher income, educational attainment, being fit and thin or having a job, Miller notes.

According to the Washington, DC-based National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 58% of the U.S. adult population reported one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week. Insomnia was defined as having any of the following symptoms: difficulty falling asleep, waking a lot during the night, waking up too early and not being able to go back to sleep, or waking up feeling unrefreshed, according to Richard Gelula, CEO of the NSF.

Fortunately, insomnia is a manageable condition, and there are treatments that can help insomniacs fall asleep fast, stay asleep longer and wake up feeling refreshed, Gelula says.

“If you’ve been sleeping poorly for some time and recognize that your sleepless nights are affecting your days, it may be time to talk to a doctor,” he says. “A sleep diary, noting such things as the time you went to bed, the time you awoke, and other similar items, may help you and your doctor determine the appropriate solution, which may include lifestyle changes, behavioral therapy, or treatment with a prescription sleep aid.”