The gradual increase in traffic and competitiveness of the transport sector has increased the stress that professional drivers have to deal with on a daily basis over the last few decades. Traffic pollution adds other health concerns to an occupation that is sedentary and generally bad for health.
As drivers are often on the coal face of dealing with customers, there is added stress caused by unrealistic schedules causing lateness for buses and truck deliveries creating anguish and conflict with customers. Shift work and the 24/7 business approach have also reduced family time and increased fatigue for many drivers.
Driving at night increases the risk of accidents – some studies have shown that you are three times more likely to have an accident when it’s dark than when it’s light, and that you could be up to 70 times as likely to have a fatal accident between 3am and 6am as during the day.
Shift work increases the risk of a huge number of negative health effects such as gastrointestinal symptoms (upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea, constipation and heartburn), higher rates of heart attacks and cancer, increased likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes and disruptions on the deepest molecular levels where 97% of our rhythmic genes becomes out of sync with mistimed sleep.
The resulting feeling of ‘jet lag’ puts stress on the body in many ways. Drivers’ meal times are disrupted leading to poor eating habits. Quality of life outside of work is reduced due to daytime insomnia and less contact with the family.
A dramatic increase in the number of vehicles on the road has more than offset the reduction in pollution caused by the vehicles. In rural areas, air pollution is not significant, but a delivery driver or bus driver in central Sydney will experience persistent levels of nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and diesel particulates (which are cancer-causing) during the day. Even if the cab doors and windows are closed, air has to come from somewhere and it’s seeping in via any number of holes in the bodywork, through door seals, and so on. Some vehicles come with better air conditioning filters than others, but no air filter will reduce all the pollutants.
Atmospheric pollution in our cities causes many deaths and illness per year and can aggravate asthma and eye irritation and cause bronchial issues.
Increased risk of injury
The more you drive, the more you are at risk of having an accident just through the amount of time spent on the road. As mentioned above, driving in darkness increases the risk further, and driving when our circadian rhythm says we should definitely be sleeping increases the risk of falling asleep at the wheel many times. While just 4.2% of all drivers report having fallen asleep at the wheel, 33% of truck drivers have said they have. Another study found that 28% of truck drivers had fallen asleep at the wheel and that 44% of them had had an accident as a result of it.
Additionally, the sedentary nature of driving means that your spine becomes weaker yet your shoulders and neck can become more tense. These weakened muscles can then make drivers susceptible to herniated discs and trapped nerves. Plus, being sedentary can contribute to poor circulation, which reduces blood flow to the extremities and leads to risks of skin disorders such as ulcers in those locations.
Typical illnesses in professional drivers
Drivers are exposed to volatile organic chemicals within their cabins which are gassing out from plastics and rubbers within the cab. From outside the cab, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons caused by burning fossil fuels are seeping in. These are implicated in bladder and lung cancers which are more common in drivers.
Lack of exercise results in a weaker body that tends to be more susceptible to stiffness, fatigue, muscle and joint pain. In some industries over 50% of drivers suffer from some kind of back pain with lower back pain the most common.
Noise and vibration exposure
Noise and vibration are significant in occupations where very heavy machinery is used, such as mining, but is also present in general trucking and coach driving. Persistent exposure to noise over 70dBA is shown to reduce quality of life. Many trucks are 80dBA in the cabin. The recommended maximum daily exposure at 85dBA is eight hours for it to be considered extreme. Exposure to noise over long periods of time reduces high frequency hearing response. 56% of drivers driving with the windows closed and the radio on exceeded 85dBA in a study of eight trucking companies in Canada.
Digestive and gastrointestinal disorders
Peptic ulcers are common in drivers. Drivers tend to dehydrate themselves and/or continue with a full bladder. Dehydration causes a multitude of problems with the body. Untreated long term dehydration can even cause brain damage in extreme cases. If your urine is anything other then fairly clear then you are most likely dehydrated. If you are thirsty you are already dehydrated. Dehydration causes lethargy, headaches and lengthened reaction times. If you take a painkiller for a headache and drink a glass of water to swallow the pill, there is a chance you are just partially correcting dehydration and that if you just drunk the water alone that the headache would clear up.
The older you are, the less likely you are to register thirst. Dehydration amongst the elderly is common.
Working with employers
Employers should be encouraged to create schedules and shifts that respect changes in sleep patterns and allow drivers to remain safe and have a good quality of time outside of work. Refreshed drivers are safer drivers.