Researchers examine link between drivers' health, safety and compensation
Arguably the most critical driver-centric issues in the trucking industry-safety, fatigue, health & wellness and compensation and the way they interact and impact each other-have been a research focus of college economics professor Michael H. Belzer throughout his academic career, and for good reason. Before earning his Ph.D. and joining the faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., Belzer drove over-the-road for eight years. Altogether, he's studied trucking and truckers for 30 years from inside the cab of a big rig as well as from atop the ivory tower of academia, which helps explain why Wikipedia describes him as an “internationally recognized expert on the trucking industry” .
In 2003, Belzer organized a conference that drew an international group of researchers and industry officials to Detroit to discuss the occupational safety and health of commercial motor vehicle drivers. The conference was unusual, Belzer and co-author Greg Saltzman noted in a formal report  released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), because it focused on driver well-being rather than general safety and transportation issues. “Truck drivers merit special attention not only because of their large numbers approximately 2.8 million in the U.S. but also because they face extraordinary risk of on-the-job injury and death,” they wrote.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more U.S. truckers and delivery drivers die on the job than any other vocation. The number of such deaths totaled 683 in 2009. The number is inflated by the huge number of commercial drivers, but even on a percentage-of-workers basis, trucking ranks among the top-10 for on-the-job deaths, behind such hazardous occupations as commercial fishing, logging, coal mining and roofingâ€¦and ahead of patrol officers and electrical power-line installers and repairers .
So, as a former trucker who now studies the industry from a scientific and economic standpoint, does Belzer consider driving a dangerous job?
“It's not as dangerous as logging, but it isn‘t a pretty picture,” he tells Highway Health magazine. “The biggest problem and this was the theme of the conference is the risk to the drivers' long-term health. Yes, safety is important, but it's a relatively small part of the picture. The relatively big part that nobody wants to deal with is the health problem.”
Saltzman, a professor in the Department of Economics and Management at Albion College in Albion, Mich., agrees, adding that driver fatigue is the most obvious health factor associated with crashes, but the occupational health risks of commercial driving go well beyond those that directly impact driver safety. “If you're a tanker driver inhaling fumes, that's a cancer risk,” he says. “If you deliver soda or beer, there are all sorts of back injuries associated with lifting objects. The greatest risks, though, are the health risks that accumulate over the years.”
Belzer has done enough studies and surveys and gathered enough data to know that driver health and wellness is a complicated issue involving many overlapping and interacting factors, including professional demands, personal habits and economic constraints. At the same time, he isn't prepared to specifically link driving long-haul to a shortened lifespan, because the scientific evidence isn't quite there yet.
What is not in doubt is that drivers face a number of risk factors such as long workweeks and a largely sedentary job that may contribute to musculoskeletal problems, stress and poor eating, sleeping and exercise habits, which can lead to a host of health issues including high blood pressure, back pain, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
While many drivers successfully deal with the things they can control such as diet and exercise, an irregular, 70-hour workweek can create an unhealthy environment that makes it difficult for even determined dieters and exercisers to stay on track, according to researchers.
“The issue over the years is the demand on time,” says Roger R. Rosa, deputy associate director for science at NIOSH. “You have to keep the equipment moving to make money, so there's a strong incentive for drivers to maximize their time on the road. At some point, that can be a risk, either fatigue in the short term or health risks over many years of driving. Surveys indicate that as hours or work per week grow, the risk grows.”
In a chapter he authored for the “The Handbook of Operator Fatigue”  that addresses a general population of workers, Rosa cites 52 research papers that associate “performance loss, injury and illness outcomes” with overtime and extended work shifts (i.e., longer than eight hours).
“If drivers can control their hours, obviously anything that fosters getting a regular, full night of sleep is going to help,” he tells Highway Health. “Longer breaks during the workday also help. Truck drivers always have to balance proper rest with being able to make a living. That's a challenge for them.”
Given the difficult economic balancing act that both drivers and carriers face combined with a highly competitive environment, what can be done to improve driver safety as well as driver health and wellness? In addition to the new hours of service (HOS) rule, which lengthens the mandatory workday rest period and time between restarts,
Saltzman supports mandatory on-board electronic recorders to curtail the widespread abuse of HOS, and Belzer suggests paying drivers for their non-driving work time, such as time spent waiting at the loading dock.
In their 2003 report (updated in 2007), Belzer and Saltzman explore the relationship between driver compensation and safety. Among their findings:
• Driver compensation is inversely associated with both employee turnover and crash risk.
• Three empirical studies on the relationship between truck driver compensation and safety found a strong and significant relationship: more pay to the driver resulted in substantially fewer crashes.
• Higher compensation may reduce crash risk by enabling carriers to recruit and retain better-qualified drivers.
• Higher compensation might reduce the driver's economic incentive to exceed legal and safe driving limits while increasing his or her desire to maintain a good driving record.
Asked for an example, Belzer points to a study of compensation at JB Hunt, which substantially raised its driver pay in 1997. “It was the largest natural experiment I have ever seen,” Belzer says. “By raising their pay and shuffling the deck, JB Hunt was able to get rid of their bad drivers and hire better, safer, more experienced drivers.”
The result: a 10 percent higher base mileage rate was associated with a 34 percent lower probability of a crash.
So all you have to do to boost safety is pay drivers more money, thus attracting better drivers to replace the not-so-safe drivers?
“The problem is far more complicated than that,” Belzer says. “For it to be worth the investment, freight rates have to be high enough to sustain paying those rates. The problem is, the market won't support it. Why? That's a very big question.
“My personal opinion, my hunch, is that there are a lot of bottom-feeders out there who are undercutting the competition, and that continuous turbulence is always putting downward pressure on rates, and that will in turn put downward pressure on driver compensation because that is the only place you can cut. You can't pay less for fuel or for trucks, but you can pay less for compensation. So they keep driving it down.”
Alas, in the trucking industry, things are never quite as simple as they may seem. They say that safety pays, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that's true in the trucking industry, but Belzeralways the economist-wants to see a solid cost-benefit analysis before he goes on record. He has a grad student working on it right now.
2. “Driver Occupational Safety and Health, Conference Report and Selective Literature Review,” 2003, updated in 2007.
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics
4. “Work Hours, Fatigue, Safety and Health,” chapter in “The Handbook of Operator Fatigue,” 2012, pre-publication copy, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.