Some 200 medical researchers, doctors, regulators, trucking executives and others spent two and a half days in Baltimore this week talking about truck and bus drivers. From the blizzard of studies, statistics and analyses came a short message to the trucking industry: Invest in health.

It has long been understood that truck driving - particularly long-haul driving - is a physically demanding and risky occupation. Moreover, long hours, hard labor and on-the-road living make it hard for drivers to take care of their health.

Statistics presented at the conference bear this out.

One presenter, Dr. Eric Wood of the University of Utah, reported that his study of mainly long-haul drivers found that half smoke tobacco, 58 percent are covered by health insurance, 28 percent suffer from hypertension compared to 17 percent of manufacturing workers, 25 percent had high cholesterol (compared to 16 percent), 10 percent had diabetes mellitus (compared to 5 percent) and almost 15 percent had sleep apnea.

Lawrence Cheskin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, reported that 55 percent of truck drivers are obese with a body mass index of 30 or higher, compared to 33 percent of U.S. men.

Anne Ferro, chief of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said the life expectancy of a commercial driver is 16 years shorter than the norm, referencing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It is a startling, frightening and frankly untenable figure," she said. "There are a host of contributing issues but health is at the heart of it."

(Editor's Note: Further reporting indicates this statistic in question; see Nov. 22 story.

Ferro noted that this meeting, the International Conference on Commercial Driver Health and Wellness, was the first of its type - but she hopes not the last. It was organized by the Transportation Research Board and supported by FMCSA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The committee that put the event together includes Rebecca Brewster of the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of American Trucking Associations; Tom Moore of the National Private Truck Council, and LaMont Byrd of the Teamsters union.

Return on Investment

Albert Alvarez, a senior transportation specialist at FMCSA, said that while profit margins are slim in trucking, it is possible to for companies to show a positive return on investment in health, an observation that was borne out in a presentation by Greer Woodruff Greer woodruff, senior vice president of safety and security at J.B Hunt Transport.

A key element of Hunt's wellness program is a detailed analysis of the actual physical work that goes into various types of jobs, coupled with an examination of an applicant's physical ability, the better to match the worker with the job, Woodruff said.

Also physicals are recorded electronically so the company can scan and analyze the data to better understand health issues and trends, and identify risks early.

Before the company began this process, 70 percent of its workmen's' compensation costs came from 10 percent of its claims, Woodruff said. Now, the number and cost of claims are down, he said. The return on investment has gone from 1.9 to 1, to 3.3 to 1 over the course of three years. Net savings: from $1.6 million to $4.1 million.

But as Ferro pointed out, the trucking industry is mostly made up of small businesses that make pennies on the dollar, at best, and are hard-pressed to make the kind of investment that a big carrier like Hunt can make.

What's needed, according to Professor Dee Edington of the University of Michigan, is a cultural change not just in trucking but in business in general. Businesses need to embrace health as a strategy for their own success, he said.

"Improved health status will not only reduce healthcare costs for companies but also increase performance and productivity in the workplace," he said.

Business should focus its effort on people who have relatively few risk factors. "Help the healthy people stay healthy, and not get worse," he said.

Key Risk Indicators

Trucking companies in particular would benefit from paying attention to two key indicators of driver risk, said safety consultant Ron Knipling.

A driver who has been involved in a serious single-vehicle crash merits close attention, he said. Such crashes may indicate that the driver was driving too fast for conditions, fell asleep at the wheel, or has a medical condition.

Also worthy of attention are drivers who do not wear a seatbelt, Knipling said. Statistically, drivers who don't wear seat belts are 84 percent more likely to be involved in a single-vehicle crash, compared to a multi-vehicle crash which often is triggered by another driver's behavior.

Attorney Jeremy Kahn highlighted the difficulty carriers may face due to conflicts between their efforts to improve driver health, and well-intended safety regulations.

He cited one instance in which UPS wound up paying a large settlement because it adopted the DOT hearing standard for drivers fleetwide, which was determined to be discriminatory against drivers of small pickup and delivery trucks.

"Companies have learned that heaven help you if you go one iota beyond the rules," he said.

A particular concern among companies that use the owner-operator business model is that a health and wellness program could be seen as an attempt to exercise control and lead to classification of owner-operators as employees, he said.

"This shows the need for a more interdisciplinary approach to what industry and academia have to do to improve driver health," he said.