Have a Heart

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How many heavy-duty truck and bus drivers are there in South Africa? The latest stats, according to eNaTIS, indicate that there are around 500 000 active heavy-duty drivers in South Africa. A safe assumption is that there are around 100 000 Code EC (old Code 14) extra-heavy-duty drivers moving freight over long distances every day in South Africa.

But not all truck drivers are subjected to the same health-level stresses and occupational challenges. It’s the extra-heavy, long-distance drivers who are the most challenged when it comes to heart-health issues.

Internationally, truck driving is ranked as being one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, and has the greatest number of injuries and illnesses among commercial drivers.

Even more so in South Africa, truck driving can be very stressful for a number of reasons.

Drivers must master diverse skills in order to be able to manage and control a heavily loaded tractor/trailer.

In addition, the driver must deal with the various hazards of the road. This includes weather, accidents, road construction, traffic congestion and other situations, such as road rage and drivers who do not respect a truck’s stopping distance to fill up the gap a truck driver leaves in following traffic to stop safely.

Furthermore, there are ever-increasing pressures to adhere to demanding pick-up and delivery schedules. Consequently, drivers have increased stress levels due to work-related pressures.

And then there is a ‘fear factor’, given the ever-increasing number of local and foreign drivers ‘waiting at the gate’ for driving work. Any default could be construed as an opportunity to lose the job to someone who is prepared to drive for less. Professional long-distance South African truckers report only hiring three out of 100 applicants as suitably qualified drivers.

The reaction to stress, with monotonous and unmonitored long hours on the road, is smoking as an antidote. Smokers are two to three times more likely to die from a heart attack and twice as likely to die from a stroke. The lifestyle of long-distance drivers may differ greatly from local distribution work, but the negative effect of smoking applies to all drivers.

Obesity is also a major problem in the trucking industry, caused in part by the sedentary lifestyle of many truckers, known to increase the risk of heart disease and strokes. Obesity is also caused by poor-quality foods which many drivers consume on a regular basis. This includes foods which contain excessive amounts of saturated fat, trans-fat and sugar. Also, people under stress may overeat more than they otherwise would.

An important factor in the perpetuating cycle of diabetes and hypertension is that, once diagnosed with the condition, drivers on the road often fail to follow up on medical appointments to monitor the condition and to collect their medication.

Extreme fatigue and tiredness may be the forerunner of a heart attack. But drivers must be trained in recognising the signs of a heart attack, which can include the following:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, pain or pressure in the chest centre that spreads up into   throat or jaw could be a sign of a heart attack;
  • Shortness of breath, especially when walking up an incline or stairs;
  • Pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulder. A classic heart attack symptom is pain that radiates down the left side of the body;
  • Swollen legs, feet and ankles. When the heart can’t pump fast enough, blood backs up in the veins and causes bloating;
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat for no obvious reason could signal a heart attack.

It’s tough to be cautious about your health and diet on the road. With limited time, space, and options, it’s no wonder many truckers will resort to fast food and energy drinks to sustain them on the road.

Too much sugar can also lead to sleepiness, which is obviously not good for you if you still have a 5-hour drive to your next off-load. When we feel tired and need a pick-me-up, we have a tendency to reach for a can of cool drink or sweets. The sugar gives us a quick burst of energy, but then it fizzles as quickly, leaving us more tired than before. Several studies have indicated that protein-rich foods can increase cognitive performance and leave us feeling full longer.

Examples are: fresh or dried fruit, sunflower seeds, hard-boiled eggs, peanut butter, biltong, smoothies, low calorie gum.

Driver training

In a modern context, driver training is much more than teaching drivers about road craft and saving fuel, it must include lifestyle training. Simply measuring both blood pressure and blood sugar levels is a sure-fire way of spotting developing or serious health problems that need control.

Today’s new trucks are a far cry from their forerunners where many did not offer power steering and manual shift gearboxes which required double-declutching due to an absence of synchromesh.

Modern trucks offer automated shift transmissions (AMT) where gearshift stress is removed. Braking systems now include ABS for ease of braking control, and standard power steering makes most trucks an ‘easy-drive’ unit.

“It pays to monitor driver health properly and not through ‘cheap’ medical certificates. After all, a truck driver is the nut behind the wheel that holds the truck together and our 100 000 long-distance drivers need special attention,” concludes Craig Uren, chief operating officer, Isuzu Truck South Africa.

Isuzu Truck SA, www.isuzutrucks.co.za