They’re the most visible invisible workers in America. That’s how Karen Heaton, PhD, CEN, FNP-BC, describes the 1.5 million long-haul truckers crisscrossing America’s highways.
“We see the vehicle, but we never see the person behind the wheel,” said Heaton, who recently received a two-year grant for $380,900 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)/National Institutes of Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOSH) to study the sleep health of long-haul truckers.
To establish her study, Heaton worked with her department chair, Kathleen Brown, PhD, RN, and her faculty mentor, Karen Meneses, PhD, RN, FAAN. “Throughout the process of preparing my grant application, Dr. Meneses would comment and guide,” said Heaton. “My study involves development of an intervention, which is her area of expertise.
She also has reviewed grants for years and knows what reviewers are looking for, and we sent the application to two outside experts for feedback. Dr. Meneses was instrumental in helping me think through the process of choosing my research team. And then the research centers on campus helped me connect to researchers and resources.”
Successfully targeting the CDC/NIOSH meant convincing these agencies that Heaton’s project could have an impact on public health and safety, as well as the health and safety of the truckers. “Dr. Meneses guided me in that and also helped me communicate that this is not a one-shot project. We’re already looking to the future and to further studies.”
Heaton said she wanted to study truckers because “they’re salt-of-the-earth people who work hard to make a living under difficult circumstances, and they have significant risk for work-related injuries.”
Her first goal is to translate a lecture-based sleep, alertness, and fatigue management program into a distance-accessible format.
“There’s an existing program which was created in the nineties, and it’s still very good,” Heaton explained. “But it’s presented live in classrooms, which are difficult for truckers to access. However, many drivers now travel with laptops so they can communicate with employers and family members or play games and watch movies during down time. Most large truck stop chains offer WiFi. So I thought that might be a good venue for delivering health information.”
Heaton is working with 80 truckers to determine (1) whether they like the distance-based program and find it helpful, and (2) whether the program components motivate them to make healthy changes in their sleep practices.
“The safest amount of sleep for driving is seven to eight hours a night, and truckers tend not to get that for all sorts of reasons,” Heaton explained. “Usually, when a crash involves a commercial vehicle and a passenger vehicle, the driver of the passenger vehicle is at fault. Still, truckers have the highest rates of work-related motor vehicle crashes and the highest number of days missed because of injury.”
Heaton said that drivers sometimes sleep even more erratically at home, where they’re trying to make up for lost time with their families. She hopes to continue her work and explore that issue, the ultimate goal being to create much needed health and safety interventions for these drivers—and for the families who wait for them back home.
Safety on 18 wheels
Karen Heaton working to improve the health of most visible invisible workers in America