Truck Driving & Ergonomic Challenges

September 28, 2017

On the Road

Truck Driving Presents Unique Ergonomic Challenges

Ergonomics—the science of fitting the job to the worker, rather than the other way around— has become an important topic for many jobs that require hard physical labor. Construction and manufacturing were two industries where ergonomic principles were first pioneered— and where substantial savings were found as injuries and workers’ comp claims declined in numbers.

But in recent years, leaders in other industries have come to understand the economic and health benefits of a good ergonomic strategy.

Long-haul trucking is one of these industries. As part of an industry with unique physical and mental challenges, trucking companies have to deal with risks and expenses that many industries never see. But as they have begun engaging on ergonomic issues, trucking companies have realized that better ergonomic strategies can save money and make their employees safer.

Trucking - A Job Like No Other 
Trucking is a uniquely challenging profession. The risks of injury and death due to road accidents are relatively high—but those are not the only health risks that truckers face. At a time when some ergonomics experts have adopted the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” to emphasize the health risk of sedentary lifestyles, truckers must necessarily sit for hours in order to do their jobs.

According to the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD), physical inactivity has been linked to higher rates of cancer, diabetes, cognitive decline, loss of bone mass, and obesity. Truckers are also reporting high rates of other health issues, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, deep vein thrombosis, and back pain.

Truckers are required to go from sitting for hours to conducting hard physical labor, especially if they are responsible for unloading or loading their trucks. If truckers are required to pull a fifth-wheel pin on their rig, the torque and stress to the body of that task can also cause injury. Shoulder, elbow, and wrist injuries are associated with this task, and these can be very painful.

Even getting out of trucks can cause injuries, if drivers don’t use three points of contact when climbing up and down from their cabs. Jumping out of a cab, putting tarp over a load, opening and closing panels, even fueling and washing windows—all can cause injury if a trucker is careless in transitioning from sitting to sudden, strenuous physical activity.

Bad Vibrations - Another Area of Physical Stress
Among the many ergonomic issues that drivers deal with, vibration is one of the most serious. According to Eckardt Johanning, MD, an occupational health specialist, whole-body vibration of the type that truckers experience can lead to serous back and spine issues.

“Whole-body vibration stemming from engines and vehicles has been identified as an important mechanical stressor causing early and accelerated degenerative spine diseases, leading to back pain and spine disorders such as prolapsed discs,” Eckardt wrote in a 2015 paper. “Poor body posture, inadequate seat support and muscle fatigue are likely co-factors in the pathogenesis of musculoskeletal disorders of the spine in operators/drivers. High prevalence of back pain, early degenerative changes of the spine and herniated lumbar disc problems have been consistently reported among vibration exposed occupational groups: tractor drivers, truckers and interstate bus drivers.”

This concern about serious spine issues has led ergonomics experts to highly recommend air-ride cabs for truckers, or additional padding in seats. A variety of seat products have been linked to reductions in back pain and fatigue among truck drivers. These innovations can cost money to implement, but compared to the loss of productivity and high workers’ comp claims that are associated with back and spinal issues, the changes are well worth the investment.

An Egronomic Checklist
Follow these recommendations to make the driver’s job more ergonomically correct—and ultimately safer.

  • Use an ergonomically correct seat; add extra padding if needed. The more the seat padding absorbs the truck’s vibration, the better for the driver.
  • Adjust the seat and steering wheel so that the driver can comfortably and completely manipulate the pedals without moving his or her back off the back of the seat.
  • Position the steering wheel to keep elbows as close to the driver’s sides as possible.
  • Tilt the seat 110 degrees from a driver’s legs to minimize pressure on spinal discs.
  • Position mirrors so the driver does not have to twist or move to see necessary fields of view.
  • Roll up a towel or cushion for extra back support, if needed.
  • When going on long trips, tilt the seat a notch or two every 20 minutes. This effectively changes the direction of the vibration on the body.
  • Take a 5 minute break every hour. Rest and stretch during each break.
  • Regularly change seating positions while driving to avoid poor blood circulation.
  • After ending a stretch of driving, rest for a while before doing any strenuous activity. Stretching is also recommended.

Fitness Makes a Better Driver 
Companies should encourage healthy lifestyle and wellness activities in general—the physical stresses of driving are challenging, so a healthy lifestyle is all the more important. Encouraging healthy eating and exercise habits or providing resources such as gym memberships can be helpful and show that you are invested in your workers. Training on ergonomics is another wise investment.

Many resources are now available for companies of all types and sizes to help put an effective ergonomic process in place. Your broker can provide education for drivers; the latest information on technology innovations and ergonomic best practices; and systems for analyzing claims data to better understand what issues are of particular interest to your company and your drivers.