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John Lundy, Published November 03 2013

Truck drivers considered last of rolling cowboys

DULUTH, Minn. – Truck driving is one of the least healthy of careers, according to medical experts and those in the profession.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics supports that claim, calling trucking one of the highest-risk occupations in the U.S. in a 2007 study. While the risk obviously includes the danger posed by highway accidents, unhealthy lifestyles also play a part, said Dr. Clayton Cowl, who practices occupational medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

“Commercial drivers are some of the most unhealthy of any specific occupational cohort,” said Cowl.

High rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes and coronary disease are not uncommon.

“Back pain and obstructive sleep apnea are quite high in this particular population,” said Cowl, who takes such an interest in trucker health that he obtained a Class A commercial driver’s license.

Studies cited in the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Journal in 2010 claimed a life expectancy of 63 years for male unionized truckers and 55.7 years for independent drivers. A life expectancy of 61 years is cited frequently in Internet posts, but others dispute the authenticity of that claim.

Jon Vinje, president and CEO of Halvor Lines in Superior, Wis., says the life expectancy number he has heard is 62 years. Overall life expectancy in the United State is 78.6 years, according to the World Health Organization, and for males in the U.S. it’s 76.1 years. The numbers for U.S. truckers are closer to that of the life expectancy in Haiti, which is 62.8 years.

What is it about trucking that’s so hard on health?

“The one thing that stands out is a very unpredictable and erratic schedule,” Cowl said.

Under federal regulations, drivers can spend up to 11 hours a day behind the wheel. And because many truckers are paid by the mile, many tend to drive for 10 to 11 out of every 24 hours, Cowl said.

“So, there are stresses that go with changes in weather, road conditions or the environment that plays a key role in drivers having difficulty in predicting their schedules,” he said. “The fact is they are away a lot of the time from the support of friends and family. They are the last rolling cowboys out there on the road.”

And when they’re on the road their food choices are often unhealthy, said Keith Terska, driver services coordinator and trainer for Halvor Lines.

“When I first started, you walked into a truck stop and they had a restaurant,” said Terska, himself a driver for more than 30 years.

“You could order a decent meal, and you’d do all right. But so many of them got away from having the restaurant and went to fast food,” he said.

That’s starting to change, Terska said. But even when there are healthier options, a trucker in a hurry may choose fast food.

“It’s real hard unless you pack your own meal,” he said. “It’s real hard to eat healthy.”

Cowl agreed, noting that it’s hard for anyone who travels frequently to eat well.

“If you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, most people don’t want to take a lot of time to really focus on nutrition,” he said.

That’s why Kathryn Clements of Cannon Falls wrote her book “Real Meals on 18 Wheels,” along with Harriet Hodgson of Rochester.

A registered dietitian since 1990, Clements has been specializing in trucker health for 10 years.

“Truck drivers were a high-risk population, and they were underserved,” Clements said after leading a two-hour seminar for 24 truck drivers last month in Austin, Minn. “I realized that there is a real niche here and a real need.”

Like Cowl, Clements has come to have a deep respect for the truck-driving profession. Most drivers, she said, are “cream-of-the-crop” people who are out to support their families as well as they can.

She has a lower opinion of the trucking industry, which she said traditionally has treated truckers as being “disposable and replaceable people.”

Her message is to teach the basics of healthy eating, to tell truckers that they need to feed their bodies every four to six hours, and to tell them that “they have to love themselves enough to take the time to do it,” she said.

Her book focuses on how to find nutritional meals on the road. She envisions later books on exercise and on cooking in the truck, she said.

Both Cowl and Clements say the situation is improving for truckers and health. It’s becoming more common for trucking firms to hire a health and wellness director as Halvor Lines did this year, Cowl said. He attributes that to federal regulations that are making it advantageous, especially for large companies – those with thousands of trucks on the road – to pay more attention to trucker health.

“We’re at the dawn of a new era in the trucking industry,” Cowl said. “And because of these regulatory changes, it has incentivized the motor carriers to essentially do right by their drivers.

“Ultimately, it’s great to see these kinds of changes going on,” Cowl said.