Truckers beware: the multiple health crises plaguing Australian truck drivers 

A recent study by Monash University unveils concerning details about the wellbeing of Australian truck drivers. Steve Tyrrell shares his insight as a long-haul trucker of 39 years. (Image: Emma Dempster)

By Jessica Dempster | @dempsterjess_

With the 2022 federal election less than two weeks away, the Australian Trucking Association (ATA) says the next government must reset Australia’s approach to road safety and productivity.

The organisation’s policy charter has a target of zero deaths and zero injuries.

 “The only way to achieve a dramatic improvement in road safety is to press on with the safe systems approach: safe roads, safe vehicles, safe speeds, and safe people,” the policy says.

Key changes the ATA wants the government to implement include increased funding and repairs to all major freight roads and a $5 billion truck roads and rest program to align the road network with the national standard.

Additionally, the ATA wants the next government to enforce mandatory medicals for all heavy vehicle drivers against fit-for-purpose medical standards.

Such evaluations could be instrumental in combatting the numerous health struggles plaguing Australian truck drivers.

According to Australia’s largest survey of truck drivers, half of participants report suffering psychological distress to a moderate or severe extent.

The Driving Health study conducted by Monash University also found 79.5 per cent of Australian truck drivers are classified as overweight or obese, 63 per cent experience some form of mild to severe chronic pain, and 30 per cent have three or more chronic health conditions.

Long-haul truck driver of 39 years, Steve Tyrrell, 56, says he is not surprised by the results.

“I’ve known quite a lot of [drivers] who experience psychological issues, but I think those issues are exacerbated by the job, not necessarily caused by it,” Steve says.

“It’s a type of job you’re either suited for or you’re not.

“Plenty of people have tried it and find being away from their families and home just doesn’t work for them.”

The Driving Health study also shows the most diagnosed conditions among truck drivers are back problems, high blood pressure, and mental health issues.

Research fellow, Dr Elizabeth Pritchard, interviewed truck drivers from all over Australia as part of the study.

“A lot of drivers just don’t have the time and the resources currently to maintain a healthy lifestyle and mindset due to the nature of the job,” she says.

Steve says the stigma attached to the job that “if you’re a truckie, you must be fat and lazy” is “not the case”.

“I know a lot of my mates are trying to get healthier and look after themselves better but it’s hard,” Steve says.

“When you’re in your truck, you’re either working or sleeping; you can’t just pull over and go for a walk.

“You used to be able to get pretty healthy meals at roadhouses, but nowadays it’s all fast-food chains.

“Back in the day, a truckie would walk into a servo and buy a salad sandwich; now they walk in and leave with a pack of Krispy Kreme donuts.”

Truck driving is one of the most common occupations among male Australians, employing one in every 33 workers.

However, Australia is currently facing a nationwide shortage of drivers.

“It’s getting pretty bad,” Steve says.

“A lot of boys used to leave school, drive trucks, see the countryside and get paid for it.

“People don’t do that anymore.”

Research by Labourforce shows the shortage is due to a multitude of reasons including an aging workforce, undesirable working hours and conditions, barriers preventing industry entry for young people, and poor public perception of the industry.

Dr Pritchard says studies such as Driving Health and the work of foundations like Healthy Heads and Trucks in Sheds are crucial in spreading awareness and promoting prevention and understanding of the mental and physical health issues affecting Australian truck drivers.

“There is not any one cause and there’s not any one answer,” she says.

“[The solution] has to be multi-pronged; it has to be legislative, regulative, and it needs to come from the policy makers, the higher-ups, the drivers themselves and the general public.

“A lot of the drivers we surveyed said they struggle with fulfilling the totally different roles expected of them once they cross over the state lines [because] the legislation and policies for truck drivers differ state to state.

“It’s an incredibly huge and frustrating for issue them; the policy makers have no idea of the impact on the drivers.”

The ATA’s policy charter calls for the next government to increase national productivity by reducing this inconsistency between states.

In addition to enforcing regular medicals, the ATA says reducing the paperwork and applications truck drivers are required to file to use Australian roads would help alleviate drivers’ fatigue and stress.

Dr Pritchard says, while there’s no simple response to the situation plaguing Australian truck drivers, it’s important truck drivers, policymakers, friends, family, and the general public keep the conversation going.

“We need to see some action; there’s some amazing programs happening,” she says.

“Most drivers are doing what they can to turn things around. There’s Facebook pages offering advice on nutrition, how to eat healthy on the road and what drivers can do to stay physically active.”

As far as Steve is concerned, while he says there’s a persistent issue of truck drivers not taking care of themselves the way they should, “things are getting better”.

“I think today there a lot more avenues,” he says.

“When I first started driving there was no Headspace or Beyond Blue or even any studies being done concerning us, but now there’s a lot of opportunities for drivers to reach out and get help.”

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