Educating Truckers on the Go
By Todd Dills
When UAB nurse practitioner Karen Heaton, Ph.D., met her husband, a long-haul owner-operator, she discovered that the nation’s truckers carry a host of unmet health needs along with their cargo. In particular, “I was struck when I read that individuals who are sleep-deprived and driving have the same levels of impairment as those who are intoxicated,” Heaton says.
Now Heaton, an assistant professor in the UAB School of Nursing, is testing an online intervention program focusing on sleep and fatigue management among the nation’s truck drivers. She has been visiting industry trade shows and reaching out to trucking companies and associations to recruit drivers to participate in the study, which is funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
Heaton’s goal is to arm truck drivers with the information they need to recognize the importance of sleep for safety, well-being, and, ultimately, baseline human health. If the online model proves to be effective in reinforcing the basics of sleep among participants and encouraging them to modify their behavior, Heaton hopes that trucking companies will add it to driver-safety training. The program could even become part of the first health-related requirements for Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)-regulated training, something every new long-haul driver would take in the interest of public safety.
"Individuals who are sleep-deprived and driving have the same levels of impairment as those who are intoxicated.”
A key difference between Heaton’s online course and previous sleep education is a new component addressing crucial work-environment issues that commonly prevent drivers from obtaining healthy sleep. These can include employer and customer demands and family needs, Heaton explains, noting that some drivers also push themselves harder than their bodies or log books require. The extra content helps participants to acknowledge sources of stress and teaches them how to recognize when they become barriers to effective fatigue management.
So far, results have been positive, Heaton reports, and she credits part of the success of the online intervention to the profusion of laptops, smartphones, and tablets among drivers, along with increased Internet access through high-bandwidth cellular networks and wi-fi service at most truck stops. Using the Internet as a medium for health communication with this group may open up new opportunities for monitoring and managing health conditions in remote and highly mobile workers, Heaton notes.
Ultimately, “it’s about a lot more than driving,” she says. “It’s about their individual health as well. For some, the sleep education material is a review, but they’ve all expressed that they’ve found it valuable and believe it should be part of routine training.”
Future efforts could include a similar study involving drivers’ families in the intervention process—to “reinforce that learning and provide the support at home,” Heaton says. “If fatigue management becomes a family project, it’s much more likely to be successful.”
Myriad sources of conflict—including these prime suspects—make managing fatigue a difficult task for truck drivers, says UAB researcher Karen Heaton, Ph.D.
EMPLOYERS “Trucking companies try to achieve a balance between safety and reliable, on-time freight delivery. Certainly there have been times in the past when trucking companies pushed drivers farther than they needed to go. However, more recent federal safety initiatives are making that practice much less likely to occur.”
CUSTOMERS “The driver might be in the position of having to choose between unloading his own freight or waiting for hours at a loading dock. Truckers who decide to unload their freight incur a lot of extra physical fatigue.”
FAMILIES “The demands of the family on the driver mount while he’s away. Then he comes home and works just as hard, or harder, there.”
THE DRIVERS THEMSELVES “Some drivers want to make a name—they want to be the go-to person. They’re pushing themselves harder than their bodies or their log books tell them they need to.”