5 Steps To Improved Driver Health

Sandra Matke, Senior Editor
Posted on August 1, 2001

Working odd hours in a high-stress, mostly sedentary job, school bus drivers face an uphill battle when it comes to maintaining good health. With early morning runs or late-night field trips, it can be tempting to grab a donut or fast food instead of packing a well-balanced meal. And after long hours fighting traffic and keeping a bus-full of rambunctious kids in line, one hardly feels like hitting the gym and toning up.

Still, of all professions, school bus driving is one in which a certain level of physical fitness is imperative. Drivers must be able to evacuate students from the bus quickly and efficiently in the event of an emergency. Their level of fitness must not impede their ability to safely operate a large, powerful vehicle and to maintain control of the environment therein.

Evaluating driver health
A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) study on the health of over-the-road truck drivers indicated that more than 7o percent are overweight at the level of obesity, compared to just over 30 percent of the general population. It also found that approximately half smoke and experience high levels of stress. Would a study of school bus drivers return similar results?

"I think most school bus drivers are overweight. Any sedentary position tends to lead to weight problems," says Fran Briggs, a school bus driver in Phoenix. In addition to lack of exercise, Briggs says poor eating habits are to blame for ailing driver health. "We love to eat, and it's no one's fault but our own," she says.

Briggs adds, however, that weight should not be an issue if it does not inhibit a driver's ability to perform his duties. "[If he] can get down the aisle to help a child in trouble as quickly as possible, it's the driver's business if he is overweight," she says.

Yet, many transportation officials think the industry needs to do a better job of staying healthy. "In my almost 20 years of school bus operations, it seems a large proportion of school bus drivers are very overweight," says one official at a national school bus contractor in the Midwest. His operation supplies uniforms to its drivers and receives many requests for sizes XXXL and XXXXL. "I have even had numerous requests for bus modification to allow drivers to fit behind the wheel," he says.

Conversely, Chris Weston, a driver trainer at Pacific Western Transportation in Maple Ridge, B.C., asserts that the health of school bus drivers is no better or worse than that of other professionals. "I have been doing this for five years and I am not fat and neither are the people that I work with," he says.

However, he agrees with Briggs on one point. "Our first priority is safety," he says, and a driver needs to be healthy enough to satisfy the requirements of his position.

Designing a health plan
While school bus operators generally lack the funding to offer extensive diet and exercise resources to their drivers, there are certain things they can do to help drivers reach their health goals. Here are five steps operators recommend taking to revitalize your employees' health.

1. Provide health resources
No wellness program will be a success if drivers do not have the time, money or interest to participate. Mark Obtinario, former school bus driver and current owner of Cowlitz Coach Service in Castle Rock, Wash., suggests making it as easy as possible for employees to take part in a wellness program by offering convenient, low-cost health improvement options. "Almost every school district, particularly in urban areas, has swimming pools and gymnasiums. They [administrators] can allow the staff to use those facilities at low rates or for free," he notes.

With these resources in place, it is up to the employees to make the program a success by taking advantage of what their employers have to offer. "I believe the wellness programs that many employers have offered are only as good as the people who take advantage of them," says Cindy Miller, lead driver for Geminus Head Start XXI in Valparaiso, Ind. Miller has made efforts to stay healthy by walking to work, bike riding in between runs and working out to exercise videos in the evening. But her efforts have not been entirely successful. Working an average of 10 hours a day, she finds herself constantly low on time and energy. Driver wellness programs are nice, she says, but will not reap rewards unless employees have the time, energy and desire to take advantage of them.

Jim Pope, director of transportation and safety for the Lexington (S.C.) School District, agrees that a program's success hinges on employee interest and motivation. "I do see an interest on the part of employees to participate in something that will help their health," he says. Though the district doesn't provide funding for a driver wellness program, Pope does what he can to help drivers stay in shape by encouraging exercise and nutrition. He says that many of his drivers want to lose weight and could use support in doing so. "Overall, you'll see a concern over weight issues. Just like with me. Right now I'm trying to drop 15 to 20 pounds," he says.

Still, you cannot compare a school bus driver's plight to that of an over-the-road truck driver, says Lesley Lightner of Bloomfield, Ind. And she should know. She drove a school bus for 14 years and has been doing long-haul truck driving for the past nine years. "It's like comparing apples to oranges," she says. School bus drivers return home every night, whereas truck drivers may be on the road for weeks at a time. School bus drivers have breaks in their days, whereas truck drivers often don't. "My weight problem started when I started driving a truck. I gained 50 pounds," she says. "I was in pretty good shape when I drove a school bus because I had the opportunity to do things in between runs and eat more healthfully than I do now."

2. Focus on health, not weight
Keep in mind that the purpose of a driver wellness program is to improve drivers' health and ability to perform their jobs - not to prep them for a beauty contest. Don't fall into the trap of equating weight alone with health.

"I've known as many fat bus drivers as skinny ones, and the skinny ones have as many, if not more health problems than the fat ones," says Obtinario. Weight problems are often a result of genetics, rather than eating habits or lifestyle, he explains. Nonetheless, he doesn't deny that driving a school bus makes staying healthy even more difficult. "The fact that my job is sedentary just exacerbates my weight problem," he says.

Phillip Paige, president of Paige Bus Enterprises in Riverdale, Ill., echoes Obtinario's sentiment that weight and health are not to be confused. "Some of our drivers may look overweight, but they have to pass physicals. I feel secure after they pass that physical," he says. Having just undergone his own annual physical, Paige is confident that his drivers are being held to high standards. "It's a demanding physical that requires them to demonstrate a certain level of physical abilities," he explains.

Like Paige, Alice McCullough, a safety supervisor in Oakdale, N.Y., asserts that physical performance tests prove her drivers are fit for duty. With more than 1,000 drivers on staff, she says the majority are concerned with their health. Many walk the tracks every day while waiting for students to come out of school. "My drivers have even worked to get into shape to drag 125 pounds," she says.

3. Promote good eating habits
We all know how difficult it can be to eat healthy meals on a regular basis. The challenge is even greater when you work odd hours in a sedentary job, with little spare time before or after work due to family obligations. On any given day, 50 percent of people don't eat a single piece of fruit, according to data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The "Nutrition Almanac" recommends adults get 60 to 100 grams of protein a day and that no more than 30 percent of daily caloric intake come from fat calories. "It's very easy to fall into the 'snack trap' and substitute chips or cookies for healthful food. Candy especially provides a quick sugar high that may get a driver a few more miles down the road," says Lightner.

Proving that different people require different approaches, Richard Hansen, director of transportation at School Districts 47 and 155 in Crystal Lake, Ill., says that he has improved his heath not by being choosy about what he eats, but by eating smaller portions. He calls this the "stop eating so much diet," a term he adopted from popular cable TV sitcom "The Man Show." "I know many drivers try to lose weight by eating the right foods, but the most successful people, myself included, are the ones who simply restrict their intake," he says.

By reducing the amount he eats, Hansen has lost 41 pounds. One of his drivers followed suit and dropped 47 pounds. "This driver and I just had to overcome the old mindset, drilled into us since birth, of 'finish everything on your plate.'" It's as simple, he says, as taking smaller portions and stopping when you are full.

Paige's drivers have started a weight loss club to help improve eating habits and overall health. Each employee who participates starts the year by contributing $20 to the pot, which goes to whoever loses the most weight over the course of the year. In addition, each participating employee contributes $5 a month toward a pot that goes to whoever loses the most weight in a 30-day period. Paige says that about 30 percent of his drivers participate in this program and that they support each other, often by discouraging the intake of junk food.

About a half dozen of Pope's drivers joined Weight Watchers together through a local church. They also maintain a sort of quiet competition with each other to eat healthy and stay in shape, says Pope. "The biggest thing right now is trying to keep your canned Slim Fast in our refrigerator. It gets pilfered every night," he quips.

4. Facilitate exercise
According to the USDA, 30 percent of men and 45 percent of women say they never exercise. Experts say that even small amounts of exercise on a regular basis can significantly improve your health and reduce your risk for illness. Ten to 20 minutes of aerobic exercise - such as walking, jogging or bike riding - a day, four days a week, can reap cardiovascular benefits. This can be done in or around the bus yard, and many transportation officials are encouraging their drivers to exercise on site.

Pope promotes exercise at his operation by proposing a fantasy excursion to a faraway beach, where drivers will travel on foot. He has measured the distance around the bus lot so drivers can walk laps between routes and measure exactly how far they've gone. They then mark that distance next to their names on a chart in the drivers' lounge. The destination, Myrtle Beach, is about 150 miles from home. "It [the chart] would say, for instance, that they've walked 26 miles in the last few months and that they're heading toward Myrtle Beach. It's just something to pump them up a little bit," he says.

Mike Wagner, general manager of Alpha School Bus Co. in Crestwood, Ill., provides his employees with an in-house gym. "We have scheduled several different types of workout programs, from the very active to the more easygoing," he explains, adding that the gym is in use every day. Wagner reiterates that sitting behind the wheel all day does not make it easy to remain in top physical condition. "Therefore, it is very important that we, as employers, give them [drivers and attendants] the opportunity to recondition themselves," he says. Use of the gym is free to employees, and Wagner says it does not cost much to maintain, once the equipment has been purchased.

Similarly, drivers at Paige Bus Enterprises benefit from a drivers' lounge equipped with Orbatrack machines, stationary bikes and weights. In the past, Paige has also hired aerobics instructors to teach classes at the company three times a week. Occasionally, he pays for special passes to the YMCA for some of his employees so that they can do aerobics or swim.

Paige's most successful health incentive, however, is the sports program. About 80 percent of Paige's drivers play on one of the company's volleyball, softball or basketball teams, which compete against teams from other operations. "I've had to pick up worker's compensation costs for a couple of broken bones, but I think it's worth it for the public and human relations benefits," says Paige. In addition, Paige employees participate in ping-pong, pool and card tournaments and some get together to walk in the park.

5. Work on the body and mind
Improving diet and exercise are sure-fire ways to increase fitness, but they alone will not necessarily solve a driver's health issues. It's important to realize that some health issues may stem from other sources. According to Lightner, "Stress is another factor that contributes to obesity." And we all know how stressful it is to drive a school bus.

Larry Meyer, driver trainer and safety technician at Indianapolis Public Schools, suggests that stress is a key cause of weight gain. "We must realize that a bus driver's job is a hard one. I've seen people working for us come in slim and in 10 months, they have blimped out. I think it deals with the job and the stress of everything combined," he explains.

If stress contributes to weight gain and other health concerns, will a reduction in weight and other problems reduce stress levels? Weston believes so. If you support and encourage employee health, he says, "you would be surprised how much better relations around your shop would be and how much behavior would improve on your buses." And increased job satisfaction, as we all know, leads to improved performance and reduced absenteeism. Plus, it's not a bad way of combating the driver shortage.

"I think the bottom line is you've got to have good bus drivers. How are you going to get them if you don't have an environment they want to work in?" asks Obtinario. "The whole health issue is more than just 'are they overweight,' or 'are they getting enough sleep.' It's about investing in the people who make up your operation."

Keys to success
According to the Wellness Council of America (WELCOA), which tracks wellness programs in more than 2,100 companies, the following 10 tips will help make your program a success:
1. Make the program voluntary
2. Continually market it to employees
3. Be sensitive to age and body limitations, as well as cultural differences
4. Make the program as flexible as possible
5. Evaluate the program frequently
6. Make sure the management staff is modeling healthy behavior 7. Reward the people who have helped put the program together
8. Keep good records in order to properly evaluate the program
9. Provide a balance of fun programs and those that are clinically significant
10. Personalize the program to the workers' needs

Major health risk factors

  • Being overweight - When you are overweight, your heart has to work harder to keep your body running. Those who are overweight also run a greater risk of having high blood pressure and high cholesterol, contributing to a number of other health problems.
  • Diabetes - Diabetes increases blood cholesterol levels, which in turn increases the risk of heart problems. Being overweight also increases your risk of developing diabetes.
  • Inactivity - Because the heart is a muscle, it needs exercise to stay fit. Lack of exercise leads to decreased cardiovascular fitness levels.
  • Stress- Dealing with unruly students, difficult parents and uncooperative administrators is a sure source of stress for school bus drivers. Stress can make your blood pressure rise and increase your risk of heart attack.
  • Smoking - Smokers have a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The FMCSA study of truck drivers found that 54 percent of truckers smoke. That's a 29 percent higher frequency than among the general population.
  • Family history - Many medical conditions are hereditary. Your risks of experiencing a medical condition such as heart disease are higher if a parent or other family member has it.
  • Related Topics: driver wellness

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