Article

Saving Drivers' Backs

A brand new custom seat can go a long way toward comfort in the cab. But showing drivers how to adjust their existing seat can really help.

March 2007, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Tom Berg, Senior Editor - Also by this author

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Oh, my achin' back – or buttocks, or legs. Aches and pains are part of a driver's life. Long hours behind the wheel make for a sedentary lifestyle.

Is the seat they're sitting in right? If you're an owner-operator, and own the truck the seat's in, you might be looking to replace what's now in your truck with something that can give your back more support. And some fleets are investing in high-end seats to help prevent driver injury and keep good drivers content.

Odds are you might not have to spec new seats to help drivers be more comfortable. You probably can make better use of the seats you already have.

That's what they're saying at Schneider National Inc., which improved life for its many drivers by teaching them to properly set the seats in its Freightliner Century tractors.

Schneider buys a good quality, multi-adjustable seat, yet the company says it still got a lot of complaints.

Enter Atlas Ergonomics – a company that specializes in training people how to properly use industrial equipment and office furniture. Atlas conducted a "discomfort survey" of Schneider's drivers, listening to their complaints and offering a training program for those who seemed to need special attention. Physical therapists measured drivers' bodies, and those dimensions were used to show drivers how to adjust their seats.

In a "marking" step, the seat settings that made them more comfortable were noted by numbers on the various controls, and then recorded on a laminated card given to each driver. This system has become part of Schneider's driver training procedures, only now company trainers do the measuring and instructing.

You'd think drivers could figure out how to adjust their seats all by themselves, but there are nine adjustments on the seat Schneider specs – plus three more in the truck's tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and column. It was apparent that drivers weren't using all of them.

Schneider says it started the program to help its drivers, all the while hoping for a payback from the expenses involved. It's getting just that. After the first six months, driver complaints of discomfort dropped by 47 percent and there were 114 fewer lost-time injuries, both inside and outside the cab. Atlas says the positive results come from reducing stresses as well as discomfort. And some of those back injuries from loading and unloading that used to occur outside the cab also diminished.

BETTER SEATS AVAILABLE

While some fleets have tended to order simple seats to save money, more and more companies spec higher-quality perches because they know they have to keep increasingly scarce drivers happy. The trends toward better seats has grown in the last five or so years, suppliers and truck builders say. Owner-operators meanwhile have been more likely to buy upscale seats, either in new trucks or as replacements, because they're the ones who have to sit in them.

Truck manufacturers try to provide good seats for the money their customers are willing to spend. They supply low-cost "base" seats to stay cost-competitive, while offering better seats for nominal upcharges. An optional seat with more features and comfort potential can be had for $200 to $500 or so; a complete deluxe aftermarket seat might run $1,000 to $1,500.

Some builders have proprietary seats with many features made specifically for them by seat manufacturers. Sometimes these are the manufacturers' deluxe models with special foam, coverings, air bladders that "cycle" up and down, or other unique items that are included only in those proprietary products. Truck dealers can order and install almost any seat for you, or you can contact the seat manufacturers.

Comfort Ride, Bostrom, Knoedler, Isringhausen, National, Seats Inc. and Sears supply products to truck builders, and most will sell directly to you. You can install a seat yourself if you're handy, or have a dealer or competent shop do it. Be aware that government regulations (specifically, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Standard 207) require minimum yield strengths for seat and seatbelt mounts; seat manufacturers and truck builders test for this. The tests are so severe with such high "g" forces that any human belted into a seat would probably not survive, one builder told us. So an aftermarket installation that approximates the original mounting is almost certainly as safe as you could stand in a wreck.

STANDARD TO SUBLIME

The standard driver's seat in almost every Class 8 truck is air-suspended with a low back and a plain but rugged vinyl covering, and several basic adjustments. The passenger's seat might look like the driver's seat, but is often solidly mounted, with no suspension and maybe fewer adjustments.

The next step up would be a seat with cloth covering – less sticky than vinyl – or leather, which can both look and feel nicer. A few seats use a combination of vinyl and cloth or cloth and leather. Some really nice-looking coverings are now offered by some builders; these tend to come on more upscale seats in cabs with fancier interiors.

A high back and more adjustments, including a head rest, lumbar and bolster supports for the lower back and thighs, arm rests, will be included in truck builders' proprietary products and certain optional seats. Tilting seat pans, heating elements, cooling fans and wider-than-standard cushions are among the niceties in higher-end seats.

Of course, wider cushions are not just nice, but necessary for big people. As we've seen in recent news reports, a growing percentage of America's population is obese, and some of these folks work as truck drivers. They may be beyond the 95 percent of people for whom most seats are designed. Standard cushion width is around 18 inches, and this is not only sufficient for many people but also offers better lateral support than an overly wide seat. Some upscale seat models have cushions 20 to 22 inches wide.

Big people are also heavy, and some weigh more than the maximum of 350 or so pounds that most seat suspensions are designed to handle. Such people should be accommodated with heavier-duty suspensions that can take increased weight; these are optional in new trucks and available as replacements for seats that have worn out or broken – something that will happen sooner than usual if a "Class 8" guy or gal has been driving the truck. Some manufacturers offer seat suspensions that'll carry up to 500 pounds.

Seat cushions and suspensions, in fact, are the first things to look at and test when considering optional or aftermarket seats, manufacturers say. If the seat looks comfortable, it probably will be. But don't confuse cushiness – that is, softness – with comfort. Sit in the seat a while, either in a truck or at a truck show display, and note what pressure points the seat has and how these affect sensitive parts of your body. If you've got problems with pain or numbness in your back or thighs, observe how the seat alleviates or aggravates those problems. And remember: After a long day in the saddle, firm cushions might turn out to be more supportive and comfortable than soft ones.

Along with enough weight capacity, the suspension should have sufficient vertical travel after you've set its height to avoid bottoming out. Some manufacturers offer "low rider" seats with special suspensions that will work when the seat pan is comparatively close to the floor. These go to short people and those who just like the low-rider style.

By the way, medium-duty trucks with no air systems often make do with mechanical suspensions or solid mounts. But they don't necessarily have to because several builders offer air-sprung seats with their own electrically powered air compressors. The roof must be high enough to allow the driver's head to bob upward, of course. Commercial light-duty trucks tend to have low roofs that prevent use of air-ride seats, but such trucks tend to ride pretty well in the first place.

Swiveling bases are included by some truck builders in their proprietary products and are optional in others. Turning the seat toward the center of the truck makes it easier to get up and move into the sleeper; turning the seat around so it faces the sleeper converts the seat to an easy chair, and creates a sitting area that, in effect, enlarges the space in the sleeper. If you're thinking of getting a swiveling seat, be sure the cab is big enough and the steering wheel and column can be moved out of the way to allow the seat to move. If not, you might just have another source of aggravation.

TEACH DRIVERS HOW TO ADJUST SEATS

Almost everybody's good at griping, and a lot of drivers complain to their companies about uncomfortable seats. But a formal survey about 10 years ago found that few drivers knew how to adjust their seats, and once they were shown how, complaints diminished.

Suppliers say that's still largely true of company drivers, though owner-operators tend to be better informed.

No matter who owns the seat (and the truck it's in), fine-tuning by using all its adjustments can reduce or eliminate back pain, numbness in the legs and other problems that might plague you. Even standard-issue seats come with adjustments that you might not be aware of, and you can learn about them by reading the owner's manual.

As you've probably observed if you've driven more than one truck, there's no standard arrangement for seat controls. So handles, knobs and buttons will differ among seat makes and models. But in general, most controls will be on one side, with another at the front of the seat pan. Those on the side might be lined up, front to back, in this order: dump valve, height, lumbar, heating and recline. Let's take 'em in the order you'd adjust 'em (and when you find the right settings, you might want to mark them on a note pad, as they do at Schneider)

1. Fore/aft – The control in front is usually a lever that you grasp by reaching down between your legs, or move with one of your heels. This unlocks the seat from its tracks so you can move the entire seat forward or back. This of course gets your feet closer or farther from the pedals and your torso against or away from the steering wheel (which you'd also adjust at this point, if the truck has this feature; if so, the wheel will tilt and the column will telescope up and down). When pushed in the opposite direction, this lever also engages or unlocks the "isolator," which allows the seat to float fore-and-aft to reduce back slap in a rough-riding truck. Some folks like to use the isolator and some don't.

2. Height – Raises or lowers the seat by gradually allowing air into or out of the suspension (sometimes this will also serve as a dump valve). Set the seat so your feet are on the floor and partially support the weight of your legs. If your feet dangle off the floor, the front of the seat cushion will cut blood circulation in your legs and cause them to go numb.

3. Recline – Releases the seat back's support mechanism so the back can be moved forward or backward, getting your back comfortably straight and your hands closer to or farther from the steering wheel. Another button might allow the top half of an "articulated" seat back to be further adjusted, which can provide more or less support to the shoulders and head.

4. Heat – Activates heating elements in the seat cushion and back, something you might turn on as soon as you fire up the engine on a cold morning. Even in a warm cab, heat can relieve pain from arthritis and other maladies. Some seats also have ventilation fans that cool your legs, buttocks and back.

5. Lumbar – Inflates or deflates the bladder toward the bottom of the seat back to provide more or less support to your lower back, or tightens and loosens straps or cables in the lower seat-back that do the same thing.

6. Dump valve – A separate control on some seats quickly lowers the seat by releasing air from its suspension, which is useful while leaving the seat to walk into the sleeper, or to begin repairs on the seat.

More upscale seats will have more features and more controls, which you ought to learn and probably use. For instance, vibration or massage functions can stimulate blood circulation and relieve numbing effects on various muscles and tissues that come from hours of contact and compression.

If the buttons and knobs are on the left side of the seat, stand on the ground and look at all of them and read their labels to get an idea of what they do. Or do this after climbing in and sitting down (which you'd have to do if the controls are on the right side of the seat). Start working them to feel their effects on various portions of your body. For safety's sake, experiment while the truck's parked.

If the owner's manual has a diagram of the seat and its controls, keep it where you can glance at it until you know the controls by heart. Don't have the manual? Look in the glove compartment; if it's not there, ask your boss or salesman for one (if you're buying a truck, demand that all manuals, including this one, be included in the deal, and put this demand in the sales contract). Some manufacturers post their manuals on their web sites where you can download one and print it.

If you still can't find the manual, call the seat manufacturer's customer service department; someone there will probably be happy to send you a copy. You'll need to know the seat's model, which should be on a data plate somewhere underneath. Read that manual as soon as possible so you can begin making adjustments and make yourself as comfortable as you can in the cab.

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