Sanford research finds truckers face multiple health challenges

April 5, 2018

This piece is presented by Sanford Health.

Over-the-road truckers often suffer from ill health, pressure from regulations and time away from family that lead them to a higher-than-normal use of antidepressants, according to a Sanford Health doctor who helped research the issue.

Dr. Jolene Mitchell sees tractor-trailer operators in her office every day as medical director for Sanford Health Occupational and Environmental Medicine in Sioux Falls and as a certified medical examiner for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

“They’re worried about not being able to operate because of the pressure of their career,” she said of many of the truckers. “It’s a really difficult population to maintain their health, simply because they have so many regulatory pressures.”

Those regulations limit how many hours operators can work in a day, so when delays from weather or other setbacks reduce time on the road, they’re less apt to drink water to avoid stopping for the restroom, which leaves them dehydrated, Mitchell said.

A lot of them are heavy smokers, often don’t take time for a healthy meal and then sit in a truck most of the time, all factors that contribute to weight gain and related medical issues such as sleep deprivation and sleep apnea. Add in all the time away from a family support system, and psychotropic drugs become an option that in itself carries risks, she said.

“I’m constantly in a struggle to maintain roadway safety and public safety but also my drivers’ safety and their long-term viability,” Mitchell said. “I try really hard to emphasize they’re the person driving the truck. They’re not the truck. They really struggle with that. It’s heartbreaking, recognizing that maintaining their health and their mental health, and they aren’t just a piece of equipment.”

Jennifer Raddatz, safety director at K&J Trucking in Sioux Falls, said she encourages her roughly 110 drivers to take care of themselves physically and mentally. Eating right, taking vitamins and scheduling their work so they have time with family all help reduce the chance that they have to go on blood pressure medication or antidepressants, she said.

“If people are open and willing to give it a chance, a lot of them do succeed. That’s what we do here,” Raddatz said. “If we can help make them want to be healthy after working, they’ll be healthy here. They’ll have a good retirement with family and friends afterwards and will be happier.”

She said federal regulations should allow for more flexibility in the rule that requires no more than a solid 14 hours of work each day. The intent was to give truckers more rest time. But breakdowns, bad weather and other delays often force them to sit around and lose time that they make up for by skipping meals and not drinking water, Raddatz said.

“They said this was done to get better sleep. Well, they’re not getting better sleep,” she said.

The profession itself is stressful, Mitchell said. Blind spots, crowded cities, treacherous roads and other challenges all trigger stress hormones that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, she said.

“It’s an enormous responsibility to drive an 80,000-pound vehicle,” Mitchell said. “We want to keep the roadways safe and our tractor-trailer drivers safe. They move 70 percent of GDP every year. And a lot of times with the pressure of their job, there are so many things that complicate their well-being.”

Partly or fully automated tractor-trailers are likely coming, though Mitchell said she would recommend still having an operator onboard at all times to monitor the vehicle, especially for long hauls and inner cities.

“It would be similar to pilots when you’re looking at planes that are transporting humans,” she said.

Mitchell’s advice for truckers: lose weight and keep their body mass index below 35, eat better food and walk at least 30 minutes every day, even if it’s in a big-box store.

“Then when they come to see me, our conversations are along the lines of ‘I’ll see you in two years instead of 30 days,’ ” she said.

Sanford research finds truckers face multiple health challenges

Over-the-road truckers often suffer from ill health, pressure from regulations and time away from family that lead them to a higher-than-normal use of anti-depressants, according to a Sanford Health doctor who helped research the issue.

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