By Mike Antich
The rise in fuel prices, higher acquisition costs, and corporate sustainability initiatives have cumulatively contributed to a widespread trend to spec smaller, lower-GVW trucks, so long as it does not impair the ability to fulfill the fleet application. While smaller trucks cost less, decrease fuel consumption, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they also constrict in-cab work space for drivers.
This is a growing concern for HR departments, who are dealing with an uptick of workers’ compensation claims among fleet drivers. For taller drivers working out of a smaller truck, they cite ergonomic issues relating to cab egress and ingress, or discomfort when operating the vehicle for extended periods. Drivers who are of above-average height complain they must “contort” their bodies to fit into a smaller cab, which, some allege, will ultimately lead to ergonomic-related injuries or aggravate pre-existing conditions.
However, larger trucks are not immune from driver-ergonomic complaints. In fact, some contend that large trucks can exacerbate the chance of ergonomic injuries for some drivers.
Shorter stature drivers, women in particular, can be at risk if they must regularly stretch and strain while entering and exiting trucks or attempting to access storage compartments mounted on top of the side beds of high-profile trucks. These trucks make it difficult for employees under 5 feet 8 inches tall to access top-opening side bins or work out of a pickup bed.
Another concern for shorter stature employees operating large trucks is the increased brake and accelerator pedal distance, even with the seat moved completely forward. However, some models offer adjustable gas and brake pedals. In addition, aftermarket pedal adjustment kits are available.
A “one-size-fits-all” approach to truck specifications is an ergonomic minefield, which could have litigious consequences.
Cramped Mobile Offices
Over the years, work trucks have evolved into mobile offices equipped with a variety of in-cab devices, such as GPS and mobile data terminals for job-site reporting, routing, and work orders; along with in-cab filing bins and swivel writing boards, all of which have dramatically enhanced driver productivity. However, these devices and equipment take space, creating an increasingly cramped cab environment, restricting a driver’s body movement, which can potentially lead to ergonomic injuries.
Carpal tunnel syndrome has been viewed as primarily an office worker injury, but there has been an increase in drivers filing carpal tunnel syndrome claims. While in the field, drivers must input data using a small keyboard, or touch screen, while sitting in cramped truck cabs that are even more constrained than a typical office environment. Without adequate desk space for wrist supports, cushions, and other ergonomic-friendly accessories, drivers are at increased risk to develop a wrist strain and/or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Many mobile office solutions address these issues and provide an ergonomic-friendly in-cab environment; however, a fleet manager needs to be diligent in identifying these solutions.
Less-than- Ergonomic Upfit Decisions
Under OSHA regulations, an employer must provide a workplace (which includes work vehicles) free from recognized hazards. A variety of upfitting options are available to fleets to help reduce the risk of injury to employees, such as hydraulic self-unloading ladder racks, lower-profile service bodies, and even simple features such as step bumpers. However, workers’ compensation claims resulting from poorly spec’ed add-on equipment is on the rise. There are increased complaints about “less-than-ergonomic” upfit decisions.
Fleets often find themselves defending upfit specifications against negligence allegations that result from pushing, pulling, lifting, or bending injuries. Inappropriate equipment spec’ing decisions can result in expensive litigation. For instance, the average workers’ compensation cost for a pushing/pulling injury is more than $10,000, while the average cost for a lifting/bending incident is more than $9,000.
Proactively Minimizing Liability Exposure
Spec’ing trucks to meet the diverse needs of your entire workforce is a challenge. You can spec your fleet to a “bell curve” and deal with the exceptions by adding ergonomic-friendly equipment or swapping a driver from a large to small truck and vice versa. Often, decisions are made in the field to modify vehicles without the fleet manager being informed. The home office is often not aware of the modification until there is an issue, such as when someone complains of an ergonomics-related health issue.
Ergonomics must be higher on the fleet manager’s “radar screen.” The best approach to make your fleet more ergonomic is to be proactive in identifying potential issues and to rectify them before they result in injuries. Liability emanating from using inappropriately spec’ed equipment is an issue to which fleet managers should devote more attention, due to the high cost of litigation to defend against alleged negligence and to protect the health of employees.
In addition to health issues, poor ergonomics is a key contributor to preventable accidents. In the final analysis, resolving ergonomic issues can have a significant impact in reducing workers’ compensation costs, improving user productivity, and decreasing fatigue-induced driver errors.
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