Throughout September, tying into National Truck Driver Appreciation Week taking place Sept. 11-Sept 17, NTI is illustrating ways fleets and the industry at large can show drivers appreciation year around with meaningful, impactive policies and programs. See coverage all month in the NTI blog.
One of the most critical and foundational ways that motor carriers can show appreciation for drivers’ lives and their livelihoods is to build effective health and wellness programs that educate drivers on personal health, support them in making better decisions, and treat driver health as a team effort. Too often, drivers feel alone on this journey, and fleets too often treat a driver’s physical fitness for duty as the driver’s responsibility alone.
Here are a few reasons why it’s vital for fleets to develop robust health and wellness programs that engage and support drivers — and a few tips and best practices to get started:
It’s the right thing to do for your people: The job of being a professional driver takes a physical toll on drivers, and it’s challenging to maintain a healthy diet and find opportunities for physical activity on the road. Helping drivers have a healthier, better life so they have more quality time with their friends and families and so they can maintain their ability to earn a living as a professional driver and retire healthy is one of the most important programs your fleet can undertake. “As a whole, truck drivers have a life expectancy of 16 years less than the average population,” says Mark Manera, founder and CEO of Supply Chain Fitness, “No one’s career should define their health, but that’s what’s happening in trucking.”
Medical disqualifications and LOAs are a major contributor to turnover: Bob Perry, a consultant with Espyr’s Fit to Pass program and a longtime industry leader in developing driver health programs at fleets, estimates that the industry loses nearly 350,000 drivers annually to DOT medical disqualifications.
More than half of drivers operate on a short-term DOT medical card of one year or less, he says, meaning that examiners issuing those cards saw an underlying health issue such as diabetes or pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep deprivation, or another cause of concern.
When working internally with fleets to diagnose causes for turnover and driver attrition, NTI often sees medical disqualifications or leaves of absence accounting for between 25-50% of exits in a year.
By implementing programs to support drivers’ health, fleets can address one of the largest contributors to industry exits and help boost their own internal retention efforts. “Consider the ROI of investing in driver health programs,” says Perry. “It’s easy to prove that spending even a couple of hundred dollars a year per driver on a health program is so much more cost effective than spending the $6,000 to $7,000 it costs to replace a single driver when they leave your fleet.”
Safety and insurance costs: Manera, whose company works with motor carriers to install internal health and wellness programs, points to the growing volume of studies showing the connection between drivers with underlying health issues and crash events, as well as an increased prevalence of worker’s comp claims for drivers with underlying health concerns. Simply, “healthier drivers are safer drivers,” Manera said.
In the coming years, he foresees insurers taking a more active stance on driver health programs, much like they have with safety programs over the past 15-20 years. Those without proper health and wellness programs could see higher premiums for accident and liability coverage, as well as health insurance premiums. His company has already entered into a partnership with Nationwide to offer resources to fleets to help establish culture built around health and fitness.
Also, consider the costs of health insurance coverage, too. Fleets who engage drivers on health and wellness could see reduced costs for health and medical premiums and claims, too.
Driver health touches every fleet department. From recruiting and HR to safety, operations, compliance, and the C-suite, your entire fleet should be focused on driver health initiatives and supporting drivers where it counts.
The buck doesn’t stop with anyone. Everyone in your organization needs to make driver health a priority. Here are some best practices to get started:
➡️ Take an active approach to drivers’ medical qualifications and intervene often: Don’t leave drivers on an island with their DOT medical exams, whether they’re passing with two-year cards, short-term cards, or even receiving a DQ.
That starts by taking a long view of health and fitness, says Manera. Passing a DOT physical doesn’t mean drivers can simply neglect healthy habits the rest of the time.
“That can be a great motivational point every year or every two years,” he says, to engage with drivers to prepare to pass their DOT exam. “But you can’t just rely on a short period every two years where you sprint on your health and fitness to pass your DOT physical and then go back [to bad habits],” he said. “Your health is a year-around thing. It’s for the rest of your life.”
Know when every driver is due for a DOT physical and engage with them months in advance, says Perry, such as helping them get their blood pressure under control with diet and exercise, seeing a doctor, and educating them about fitness on the road. And if they do receive a short-term card or are disqualified from operating, help them address that medical issue instead of discarding them. “I see it so often: Fleets saying ‘I don’t have time to do that.’ Well, you have time and money to go recruit people you don’t even know to replace them, so why not help the driver you already know, who already works for you, who knows your customers and your routes? Why not help get them healthy and back on the road?”
“The attitude can’t be: ‘The driver takes the DOT exam, so it’s their responsibility.’ Yes, we’re all responsible for our personal health, but fleets can and should lay a good foundation to support drivers with their personal health.”
➡️ Educate drivers on how to make good decisions: Most meal options at truck stops obviously aren’t nutritious or healthy. Fast food dominates within truck stops, as do pizzas, candy, and other poor dietary selections. It’s vital that fleets educate drivers on their diets, how to make good choices on the road, how to properly read nutrition labels, and on pre-packing meals and snacks so they don’t have to rely on truck stop fast food for sustenance.
“We engrave in drivers’ heads the importance of pre-trip inspections [on their equipment] every time they stop and start,” said Perry. “Training for pre-trip inspections is also the absolute best time to incorporate a basic step that can help lay the groundwork for making good health decisions — the pre-trip fridge check. Teach drivers to look in their fridge, their coolers, their snack bag.” Coach drivers to bring healthier meal options on the road with them, to pack plenty of cold water, and to have nutritious snacks like fruit and nuts on hand, says Perry.
“In the course of every driver’s day, they’re going to get stuck, whether that’s traffic, construction, weather delays. And when they’re sitting there, if they don’t have a good choice to reach for, they’re going to make a bad choice,” Perry said, such as smoking, drinking a high-carb and high-sugar soda, or grabbing a fast food meal.
One of his go-to sayings is that, for drivers, fitness is “75% what goes into their mouth.”
“You can’t run around the truck enough times to outrun a bad diet,” he said. “So that’s where it starts.”
Perry recommends baking health and fitness training into regular safety and operational training sessions. “Go to a carrier’s office and look inside a safety meeting,” he says. “There will be stacks of manuals and books on equipment, regulations, safe driving, onboard computers — you name it. Rarely is there anything about health and fitness. How easy would it be to incorporate that training into those meetings?”
➡️ Incentivize accountability: One aspect of Manera’s program is building accountability for drivers to take personal responsibility for their health. That includes text message check-ins to drivers in the program, as well as consistent internal marketing and promotions. Supply Chain Fitness programs centers on education and internal marketing, including an app with personalized exercises and nutrition options that help them make better diet and fitness decisions on the road, including when they do eat at a fast food restaurant. That includes snack of the week, eat this / not that materials, truck stop guides and more.
Consistent, regular, and engaging content on health and fitness can help make decision making more subconscious and habitual for drivers, says Manera. He utilizes social media channels ranging from TikTok to LinkedIn to promote educational and motivational messages.
Perry also cites a recent successful program at a 200-truck carrier out of Mississippi, in which drivers were paid $5 to participate in a weight loss program, called Lighten Your Load, where the winner would receive $500. It spurred the fleet to take action, too, such as adding a gym in their company’s facilities, hiring a fitness coach who works directly with drivers, and spurring drivers to focus on making good decisions for their health. Perry says the fleet lost four drivers last year due to DOT medical disqualifications. After instituting the program earlier this year, they haven’t lost any drivers to medical DQs.
➡️ Run PM: Perry likens focusing on driver health to the attention that fleets place on tending to the health of their equipment, in which fleets invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, annually. “It doesn’t make a difference if a driver can’t pass a physical or if the truck’s engine blew up — the truck’s still out of service,” he said.
He recommends installing health-check stations in your fleet terminals so that you can regularly check for underlying issues like weight, BMI, blood pressure, pre-diabetes, and other health issues that a fleet could engage with a driver to fix. “I call it personal preventive maintenance, and it’s just as important as the PM you’d run on a truck and engine.”
“In transportation, companies will spend all kinds of money on technology, fuel efficiency, making sure they can monitor an engine’s life, when they’re due for an oil change, etc. But when it comes to checking under the driver’s hood, they don’t think it has value. Well, it does. It has tremendous value.”
➡️ Train everyone in your organization about the importance of driver health: Ensure everyone in your organization understands the impact that driver health has on your organization, your people, and your costs. Don’t let them shirk that responsibility. For example, Perry cites creating ambassadors within every department of your fleet, so the message is constantly being pushed to drivers.
For those in fleet leadership looking to spread the message across their organization, engage with each department on their level, Manera says. For example, with HR, talk about the benefits of retention and health insurance costs. For safety, talk about the relationship between healthy drivers and safe driving. With compliance departments, think DOT physicals and qualifications. For recruiting, help them understand how to sell health and wellness programs during the recruiting and onboarding process.
➡️ Enlist external help: Utilizing programs like Espyr’s Fit to Pass or Manera’s Supply Chain Fitness can fill the gaps and provide your fleet with an important external resource to help accomplish all the points above, and so you’re not putting extra work on your internal personnel to develop and deploy health and wellness programs.