Truck driver health is an oft-discussed problem in the commercial transport industry that nevertheless remains a significant cause of accidents. FOCUS attended N3TC’s truck driver health awareness day held at Mooi Toll Plaza in May, and witnessed roadside safety in action.
“There are two things the generalpublic are unaware of when itcomes to truck drivers,” saysAnsie Jooste, community medical servicesvolunteer on Van Reenen’s Pass.
“The first is that, for many of the driverswho have come through these tents, this is thefirst proper meal they have had today – or arelikely to have in the next day or two.
“The second is what a vital role goodnutrition actually plays in the overall safety ofa truck driver. We are talking about driving 12hours a day, six to seven days a week. Mealsare taken quickly and sporadically at best,and more often than not the easy, filling meal,such as a pie and cola, is seen as more thansufficient to keep hunger at bay.
“The result is a driver who doesn’tconcentrate on drinking enough water andkeeping hydrated, who doesn’t eat balanced,nutritious meals, has a high fat and salt intakeand remains in one position for hours on end.Fatigue, concentration lapses, back and neckproblems, headaches: any one of these canresult in an accident, but are easily avoidedthrough eating and drinking correctly.”
It was this realisation that first promptedN3TC’s KwaZulu-Natal regional incidentmanager, Praveen Sunderlall, to launch thecompany’s first truck driver health awarenessday one year ago.
According to Sunderlall, there were toomany incidents and accidents along the N3involving trucks in which the driver simplycould not say what had caused the accident.“In many accidents there are no obviousobstructions or vehicle failures, which leavesthe only other possible cause: the driverhimself,” explains Sunderlall.
“The nature of this job requires fullconcentration, but the realities of driving along-haul truck often hamper a driver’s abilityto look after his health correctly.”
The truck driver health awareness daytherefore has two core functions: to educatepassing truckers on the importance of a good,balanced diet, and to provide basic healthcareservices that many drivers simply do not havethe time to access themselves.
The first of three such awareness days for2009 was held at Mooi Toll Plaza on 14 May.Three medical service tents were erectedalongside the N3 toll route, and pamphletsdistributed to drivers ahead of Mooi Toll Plaza.Any driver wishing to get a free medical checkupwas welcome.
In the first tent, passing truckers couldget their eyesight, blood pressure and bloodsugar levels checked, receive information onthe importance of nutrition and be weighed.Nurses testing for TB were also present.
The second, more private tent, conductedvoluntary HIV tests and offered a counsellingservice.
The third tent was manned by twophysiotherapists and an occupationaltherapist.
The medical staff and medical equipment,as well as the nutritional packs each driverwas given, were donated by the KwaZulu-Natal health department, whose full cooperationwith N3TC allowed the event tobe a success. After all, without the medicalpersonnel, the free health checks would havebeen impossible.
“The idea is to educate drivers on goodhealth practices, the importance of nutrition,safe sex, how to protect their necks and lowerbacks, as well as encourage road safety,” saysSunderlall.
Over the course of the day, the blood pressureof 127 drivers and sugar levels of 86 driverswere tested; 25 TB tests were conducted;and 63 eye screenings undertaken. Of these,22 drivers had blood pressure problems, ofwhich four needed immediate treatment; fourTB test patients were contacted for a referralappointment; 15 pairs of glasses were issuedto drivers requiring aid to their eye-sight;and six drivers had blood sugar problems,of which two needed immediate intravenoustherapy.
One driver’s blood sugar levels were sohigh, he was immediately transported to the nearest local clinic and placed on a drip. “It’sunbelievable that he was even conscious,let alone walking,” says Shane Naidoo, theprimary health care manager from the KZNhealth department and medical co-ordinatorof the event.
According to one driver, whose bloodpressure was also on the high side, althoughthe operator for whom he works has an on-sitemedical service where he canalso get regular free check-ups, he is rarely atthe depot at the right time and seldom has thetime to visit the clinic.
“Drivers need full medical check-ups toqualify for their professional driving permits(PrDPs),” explains Sunderlall, “but to keepthose permits, they only need check-upsonce every two years. Anything can happenduring that time.
“Unfortunately, drivers are always on theroad, though. So we decided to bring thefacilities to them. Taking a short break on thehighway is very accessible.”
The success of the operation was almostimmediately recognisable. Sunderlall hadoriginally aimed for 100 drivers to comethrough the tents; that number was reachedwithin just two hours.
“It’s wonderful to see passing driversusing the service,” says Con Roux, N3TC’scommercial manager. “It means there is aneed and that drivers are not only willing touse such services, but appreciate the chanceto do so.”
Roux also believes it is vitally importantfor truck drivers to know that their interestsare also taken into consideration. “Projectssuch as these prove to them that their wellbeingis important. Yes, it’s a safety thing,and from N3TC’s perspective that is critical.But we need to look after the drivers of thesetrucks as well as take the safety of all ourroad users into consideration.”
The overall wellness of drivers is whatprompted the KwaZulu-Natal healthdepartment to include physiotherapists and anoccupational therapist in this year’s medical team.
“How a driver sits, how his cab is set up,how his seat is adjusted – these all play arole in back and neck problems,” explainsRose-Marie Smith, one of the attendingphysiotherapists.
“We want to educate drivers on theimportance of being comfortable whendriving. In long-distance driving there will obviously be some discomfort, buta well-adjusted cab, a little exercise and anunderstanding of how important it is to lookafter one’s back can make a huge difference.
”As in the case of nutrition, back problemsare in themselves far from life threatening,but tension headaches, pinched nerves andoverall discomfort can lead to fatigue andimpaired concentration – neither of which youwant in a driver controlling a truck weighingin at 56 t.”
The HIV tents were less successful. Of thefirst 100 drivers to stop, only six agreed to HIVtesting. “There is still too much fear attachedto HIV,” explains Naidoo. “Many people wouldrather not know their status than face thatfear.”
HIV testing is immediate and those testedreceived their results there and then – one ofthe reasons why counsellors were at hand tooffer immediate (and compulsory) counselling.
The TB nurses also had a much slowerday than their fellow medical practitioners.TB’s stigma, and the fact that it is a urine test,meant many drivers avoided that desk.
While the event was not designed toresearch the general health of drivers on theN3 through a test sample, the statistics ofthe day offer a clear message: a heightenedawareness of driver health is vitally important.
Over 3 000 trucks pass through Mooi TollPlaza on a daily basis. Fewer than 200 driversstopped to be tested, which is a mere fractionof road users. Forty-two of these had serioushealth issues that needed to be addressedimmediately or required referrals, and thisfigure excludes HIV statistics.
Although N3TC’s truck driver healthawareness project is essential to spreadingthe message of the importance of driver health,and manages to treat a few lucky individuals, afar broader programme is necessary.
“We would of course like to see more ofthese events taking place around the country,”confirms Roux. “There will be two more eventsthis year in KwaZulu-Natal, and the FreeState’s department of health is now also onboard, so we will stage events in that provincetoo. It’s certainly an excellent start to raisingawareness.”
We couldn’t agree more, although increasedoperator awareness and active assistance is amust in the long term as well.
Well done to N3TC, the KZN Road TrafficInspectorate, KwaZulu-Natal Department ofHealth, Mpofana Traffic, the Mooi RiverSAPS, Tolcon Lehumo and Rand Roadsfor arranging such an important day ofawareness.