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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Health matters—Lines of communication

The case of a truck driver, says SCOTT NEWBURN, shows the essential role of good communication with all parties to achieve quality health outcomes.

When I worked in Australia a driver of heavy trucks – let’s call him Tony – presented to my consulting rooms with a referral from his employer, which said that his colleagues had reported him falling asleep in the common eating area.

Tony, aged 56, was an extremely overweight male who had given up smoking after a 30-year habit and had gained significant weight in the last two years. He had no other risk factors for heart disease, and screening led to a high suspicion that he had the sleep disorder Obstructive Sleep Apnoea.

Expert communication skills were required to explain to Tony he must cease driving until clarification was made and treatment was sought. Tony was not happy with this legislated restriction, but I was able to convince him that by taking him off the road we could ensure the safety of himself and our community, and that with appropriate investigation and management he would be able to safely get back to his job in the coming months.


This was just the start of the ongoing communication process. I then ensured Tony was happy for me to speak with his health and safety manager, who had referred him, before discussing the case and recommending alternative duties in the truck yard. This helped to keep Tony engaged in the work environment while awaiting investigation and treatment. We know that keeping the worker engaged with the workplace is a significant factor in achieving long-term positive outcomes.

Fortunately, Tony’s company was happy to provide alternative duties, which in New Zealand currently is not always the case. The company funded a private referral to a sleep clinic for rapid investigation, which was undertaken within four weeks and confirmed sleep apnoea.

I liaised with Tony and the treatment nurse, and indicated that his dedication to treatment with a breathing mask at night was important to aid his return to driving work. With this in mind, the nurse went the extra mile in her communication with Tony, taking the trouble to ring and check in with him throughout the process. She supported him by communicating his successes in his improved sleep scores along with feedback of good symptomatic improvement. On my review with Tony he was feeling much better in himself and was responding well to the treatment and support.

The workplace was ecstatic to get the clearance for Tony to return to his driving, with an annual check-up to ensure his ongoing safety.


There was more to the communication with Tony that was kept between the two of us. Tony admitted that he had a relationship problem with his wife which in turn contributed to his increased weight, as well as eating more since stopping smoking. Tony also conceded an increased alcohol intake, while not exceeding recommended guidelines, had interfered with his ability to exercise and was also affecting his weight and relationship.

We developed a goal for Tony to control his food and alcohol intake and identified some other risk factors around the long work hours and night shifts that had contributed to his unhelpful behaviour pattern. It turned out Tony did enjoy exercise but had given up cycling some years ago because of poor fitness. When I caught up with Tony for his clearance to drive, he had lost 3 or 4kg and had found that his relationship was benefiting from a regular weekly bike ride with his wife. Tony was so encouraged with his improved feeling of health that he decided to continue with his new healthy lifestyle.

In the annual follow-up he admitted to lapses in his diet but had continued with his exercise commitment and reduced alcohol intake.


I am pleased that I get to make a difference in people’s lives and help keep the community safer. We are all human, and it would be folly to expect that all outcomes are as smooth or positive as Tony’s. I find myself continually improving my communication skills for better outcomes. Tony’s case is just one that demonstrates the vital importance of communications in managing workplace health problems, and Tony’s health, family, employer, and his community have all benefited further from Tony getting back to his job.

Dr Scott Newburn is an occupational physician with Hemisphere Health in Richmond.

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