Trucking industry tackling distraction, fatigue and work at heights

Executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association talks aging workforce, new technologies

Trucking industry tackling distraction, fatigue and work at heights

One of Terry Shaw’s biggest concerns for commercial trucking safety is “general wear and tear” — but he’s not talking about the vehicles.

“Truck drivers are getting older. They’re the biggest portion of our workplace population. They’re in one of the most safety-sensitive positions… Drivers are aging so we’re looking into wellness programming and other related items,” says Shaw, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association (MTA).

Some examples of wellness initiatives include lunch and learn workshops that provide healthy eating options, easy tips to keep active and solutions tailored to life on the road. Drivers are also connected to local health and wellness experts.

The MTA’s health and safety-related programming is offered through its RPM Trucking Industry Safety program, which was introduced in 2015 after the association was receiving calls from its members on how to reduce their workers’ compensation rates. 

Sprains and strains are another area of concern for Shaw.

“Our drivers sit in a chair for hours on a time. They get to a customer and it’s park the truck, shut the truck down and go. And then they are hustling to load, unload, hook, unhook and so we are seeing issues from that,” Shaw says.

To address this, the RPM program is encouraging drivers to engage in the appropriate warm-up before starting the job.

“You wouldn’t go to the gym, park your car and sprint into the gym. You do your appropriate warm-up,” says Shaw. “Take a second to do some stretching, walk around, get your heart rate up… It seems simplistic but that’s what the stats are telling us; that’s how folks are getting hurt.”

Shaw also wants drivers to “move mindfully” in an effort to help prevent slips, trips and falls.

“Is there ice? If so, this is Canada. Move mindfully. Don’t be reading your paperwork while you’re walking to the back of the trailer. Focus on the task at hand.”

Situations may arise where health and safety officers need to work with their company’s customers if there are conditions that are not favourable to their workers, says Shaw. For example, the lighting might be very poor in a facility and the driver can’t see what he’s doing, causing him to slip and fall. A conversation would need to be had with the customer to make the space safer for the worker.

When we think about working at heights, truck drivers are not often the occupation that comes to mind, but this a current issue within the industry. For example, drivers have to clear snow off the top of their trailers or apply tarps to cover product if they drive a flat deck trailer — both instances where fall protection may be required.

“Sometimes these drivers are crawling around 13 feet in the air on top of a load of steel trying to apply a tarp and straps. In the middle of winter, wind blowing, who knows what the lighting is like. Is fall restraint available? If it is, is it working? Are harnesses available?” says Shaw.

The MTA is working with the Canadian Trucking Alliance and Employment and Social Development Canada to raise awareness of working at heights in the industry and to help truck drivers understand their rights.

“(We want to) equip them to know what best practices look like and know what their rights and rules of engagement are or should be. If you’re not liking what you’re seeing, stop, call in… And so you do what you need to do to engage in safe practices,” Shaw says.

Driver distraction is something RPM is looking into in an effort to prevent accidents on the road.

“Our drivers are safe. They are a whole host safer than non-professional drivers. These folks drive every day, all day, for a living. They’re good at it. That said, they’re not incident-free and unfortunately where there is an incident, physics are you’ve got 80, 90, 100 thousand pounds of steel and product, hitting another vehicle, — God forbid — hitting a ditch, a wall, whatever, so that’s what we want to mitigate,” Shaw says.

Most trucking companies have formal policies in place to ensure drivers are not distracted by their cellphones while on the road. Some in-cab technology, such as satellite units, don’t work when the truck is running, and some dispatchers won’t communicate with a driver if they see the vehicle is moving.

Fatigue is also a concern, especially since there is a lot of pressure to get to a destination on time. RPM wants drivers to understand how to recognize signs of fatigue and empower them to respond appropriately.

“It’s not necessarily something the driver feels they are in control of and we need them to understand they are. You know best how you feel. You know best what condition you are operating in, and if you’re not going to make the next timeline because of fatigue, that is OK. You need to put your hand up,” Shaw says. “Communicate with the customer, the dispatcher, whatever. At the end of the day, what you shouldn’t be doing is power through it or having an extra cup of coffee.”

An emerging technology is a driver-facing in-cab camera that sounds alerts when a driver’s eyes are not on the road for an extended period of time. But Shaw has a few reservations about it.

“Could you imagine showing up at work each day knowing there is a camera 6 inches from your face and it’s recording everything you do? It’s an interesting technology but how do we utilize it in a meaningful but comfortable fashion? Remember it’s not just the driver’s workplace; it’s where they live.”

RPM is currently assessing the different available technologies and cataloguing them in order to make recommendations to its members.

“Just because they’re available doesn’t mean they’re useful,” says Shaw. “Let’s drive some discussion with our board with our safety councils and say ‘Hey, statistically does technology X create safety savings X?’ Well, maybe it’s something we look at mandating,” says Shaw.

RPM is regularly fielding calls from members about the looming marijuana legalization. Due to the absence of a roadside tool to test for impairment — the saliva test identifies the presence of the drug but this does not always relate directly to the impairment of an individual — RPM’s position for safety-sensitive positions is zero tolerance, Shaw says.

“It has to be. Should the tools for testing change, then maybe — maybe — we can evolve our position, but until then, we have no test for impairment. We can only test what’s in the bloodstream and that has to be our standard right now,” he says.

MTA is in the process of advocating for mandatory entry-level training for commercial truck drivers in Manitoba. Drivers should be required to undergo consistent, quality training before they can get their Class 1 license, Shaw says.

Ontario is currently the only jurisdiction in North America to require such training.

“You can’t legally cut somebody’s hair without going for school for two years, but if you pass your Class 1 driving exam, you’re a truck driver. There’s just a huge gap between the licensing standards, training standards and employability standards,” Shaw says.

Shaw notes that when it comes to training, the better trained somebody is, the safer he will be.

MTA is also working with Manitoba Public Insurance and the Manitoba Motor Carrier Division on a high-level road safety strategy for trucking. The association wants to identify where it should focus its prevention and education efforts as well as communicate to the industry what is happening on the enforcement side.

“Maybe there’s an issue in northern Manitoba, gravel roads, rural operations, winter roads. You know where are the opportunities to help drive even greater road safety?”

The trucking industry is getting “safer and safer year over year,” Shaw says. Since 2010, injury rates and time loss injuries in trucking have decreased by about 40 per cent, according to statistics from the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba.

RPM administers Safe Work Manitoba’s Safe Work Certification for the trucking industry — a standard for OHS in the province that financially rewards certified companies. At press time, 13 trucking companies had achieved full certification.

“Vision Zero” — striving for zero workplace incidents — is a common goal within the industry, although Shaw acknowledges it might not be the most realistic.

“(But that’s) not going to stop our pursuit of that statistic. It’s something worthy of our efforts and it’s something we are seeing success in.”

Ultimately, it’s important for the industry to take safety seriously because it affects so much more than just those individuals behind the wheel of a big rig.

“It’s not like I am an individual carpenter on a roof who is taking my own physical well-being into my own hands by not utilizing PPE (personal protective equipment),” says Shaw. “We are out in amongst the general public and we have responsibility not only for our drivers’ safety… but to the safety of the other people around us on the roads.”

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 issue of COS.