More than half of Australia's truck drivers are obese and half experience psychological distress, survey finds

The largest national survey of the health of truck drivers has found widespread medical problems and psychological distress.

Key points:

  • Truck driver Frank Black says his biggest challenges have been keeping his weight down and maintaining relationships
  • Retired truck driver Jerry Brown-Barre says the industry is “all about money, and the drivers, they’re secondary”
  • The Transport Workers’ Union said drivers need access to healthier food and places to exercise

More than half of the 1,400 drivers surveyed were considered obese.

“Around 30 per cent of drivers had three or more diagnosed health conditions, which is more than four times that of the Australian population,” researcher Dr Ross Iles said.

“One in three drivers who completed our survey reported lower back pain and one in four reported high blood pressure being diagnosed.”

The survey was conducted by Monash University, supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council and co-funded by the Transport Workers’ Union, Linfox and the Centre for Work Health and Safety.

Dr Iles says while most research on the industry is focused on road safety, the survey and follow-up interviews decided to look at the overall health of truck drivers.

“We believe a healthy driver is going to be a safe driver,” he said.

“And now what we have is the data to back up what perhaps people in the industry have known for some time – that it really is quite difficult for drivers to be healthy and stay healthy at work.”

‘I wouldn’t say it’s a healthy lifestyle’

Former truck driver Robert Bell says having three big meals a day “has a cost”.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Truck driver Frank Black says two of the biggest challenges for him have been keeping his weight down and maintaining relationships.

“Obviously I’m a little bit overweight. And it gets stressful, it’s had an impact on personal life,” he said.

“I’m divorced and had a couple of failed relationships which I put down to the nature of the job, you know, in that I’m constantly away.”

Recently retired truck driver Robert Bell said he weighed in at 126 kilograms after years of eating fatty foods at roadhouses. He has since undergone gastric band surgery.

“You were having like three big meals a day, having the full English breakfast or truck stop breakfast because they’re the sort of things you look forward to I guess.

But it has a cost,” he said.

“Has it shortened my life? I don’t know, I’m still here, but I wouldn’t say it’s a healthy lifestyle by any stretch.”

Dr Iles says there are a lot of obstacles to eating healthily on the road.

“It’s not easy to park your 18-wheeler next to the supermarket to pick up fresh fruit and veg, and there’s also a limit to how much you carry in the truck with you,” he said.

Many drivers also spoke about the stress of the job. Half of those surveyed reported some level of psychological distress.

“[There is] the stress of having to fit in with all the lawful things you were supposed to do against what your employer wants you to do,” Mr Bell said.

“So my wife would say even when I came home to sleep, I’d be tossing and turning and muttering in my sleep and all that sort of thing.”

The Transport Workers’ Union says the findings are shocking.

“What we really need to do is to provide drivers with better areas to stop, a better place to have hygiene, a place they can exercise, and much healthier food, otherwise these problems are just going to be increasing and increasing,” said the union’s national assistant secretary Nick McIntosh.

“We need the Federal Government to act in this area and stop being asleep behind the wheel.”

‘You’ve just got to put up with it’

More than half of Australia's truck drivers are obese and half experience psychological distress, survey finds Retired truck driver Jerry Brown-Sarre said a lot of drivers “put up with” health issues to get the job done.(ABC News: Michael Barnett)

Retired owner-driver Jerry Brown-Sarre says there needs to be much better training.

“No-one cares,” he said.

“It’s all about greed, it’s all about money, and the drivers, they’re secondary.”

One of the counter-intuitive findings of the research was that most drivers thought they were doing OK.

“Even though drivers had these multiple health conditions, they still rated their ability to do their job as really quite high,” Dr Iles said.

“It’s quite difficult to explain why that is.

We think it may be due to that can-do attitude of truck drivers.

They’ll do what they need to get the job done.”

Mr Brown-Sarre agreed.

After 60 years as a transport driver, he has chronic hip problems.

“You’ve just got to put up with it,” he said.

“The problem I’ve got at the moment with my own hips comes from falling off trucks and it’s that long ago you can’t put a claim on it.

You’ve got to live with it, find a way to live with it, and that applies to a lot of drivers.”

Mr Bell said this can-do attitude was born out of necessity.

“They’ve got to do that because if they drop a trip they’ll drop too much money,” he said.

“You only get paid while the wheels are turning, and that to my mind is the biggest problem facing the industry.”

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