Department of Public Health Education

Transportation workers risk shorter lifespans

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Want to add 16 years to your life? Don’t drive for a living.

The recently released Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index on the health of working Americans found that transportation occupations -- truck drivers, bus drivers, transit operators, garage mechanics, railway conductors, etc -- ranked last as compared with all other occupational categories in the nation. The poor ranking reflects the fact that these employees have less control over their decisions at work, have minimal physical activity, consume extremely poor diets, are more obese, and smoke heavily. These factors not only negatively impact an individual’s health but also can lead to a less productive workforce with alarmingly high turnover rates and the risk of a labor shortage.

The Gallup Healthways Well-Being Index corroborates the research of UNCG faculty members Yorghos Apostolopoulos and Sevil Sönmez. The pair’s research is among the most cited in the field on health problems experienced by commercial drivers and has brought commercial driver health to the forefront of occupational health and well-being. Their work has been supported by various funding sources, included the National Institutes of Health.

“Solutions to these lasting and even worsening problems do not rest only in individual drivers eating healthier or getting more exercise,” said Apostolopoulos, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health Education in UNCG’s School of Health and Human Sciences. “Problems in the overall transport sector are much more complex and dynamic than that.”

“Both the causes and the solutions for transport workers’ health problems lie in the hands of multiple stakeholders — such as government, trucking companies, truck manufacturers, unions and labor associations, and drivers themselves, among many others,” added Sönmez, a professor of sustainable tourism and hospitality and interim head of the Department of Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Hospitality and Tourism in UNCG’s Bryan School of Business and Economics.

The UNCG researchers said that millions in private, state and federal money have been spent on individual-based worksite health promotion programs that fail to make an impact in the long run.

Apostolopoulos and Sönmez propose the use of a more innovative and holistic approach to examining occupational health of transport workers. “The use of complex-systems methods -- or in other words the ‘big-picture’ approach -- would involve looking at the entire transportation system instead of certain components in isolation, as has been done until now,” Apostolopoulos explained. “This would involve critical stakeholders, such as government, private business, individual drivers, and unions, among others to help pinpoint the system’s problems.”

“By so doing, we stand a better chance of correctly identifying problems in order to design effective and lasting preventive interventions to improve transport workers’ health,” Sönmez added.

Gallup findings are particularly important given that millions of transport workers are among the most underserved segments of the U.S. workforce. The most recent work by Apostolopoulos and Sönmez has focused on truck drivers, who are more susceptible to excessive heart, lung, digestive system, skeletal and muscular problems, as well as depression, sleep disorders and physical injuries. Long-haul truck drivers in particular have a 16-year shorter life span than other Americans. Aside from the far-reaching consequences for the well-being of people working in the transport sector, the scale of these ramifications increasingly exerts an unprecedented financial burden on companies, governments and healthcare systems, as well as a safety risk for the public at large.

Other problems facing the transport sector include “high turnover, increasing medical and worker’s compensation costs, and insurance costs related to highway accidents,” Apostolopoulos said.

Sönmez added: “These issues are particularly relevant for North Carolina, where freight and logistics have emerged as a state priority to aid in improving economic development and competitiveness, according to the 2012 Piedmont Triad Region Freight Movement Report prepared by N.C. A&T State University.”

“Freight transportation and vehicle manufacturing play a key role in the Piedmont Triad region with major players such as Old Dominion Freight, Triad Freightliner and Volvo Group,” Apostolopoulos said. “Considering the goals that guide regional freight planning and investment — it should be of utmost importance to focus attention on improving the health and wellness of transport workers.”

Apostolopoulos and Sönmez can be reached by email at y_aposto@uncg.edu and sesonmez@uncg.edu.

For more information contact Lanita Withers Goins at ldgoins@uncg.edu or (336) 334-3890.