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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

Truckload of problems

The trucking industry is in bad shape and drivers are bearing the brunt, according to new research. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

It was a court case that first brought the trucking industry to Dr Clare Tedestedt George’s attention.

An owner-driver and his wife had mortgaged the house that they shared with three generations of family so they could put three trucks on the road, kitted out in the livery of the multinational food company with whom they had a regional distribution contract.

A few months into the contract the company restructured all its distribution, slashing the couple’s management fee by two-thirds. When they objected, their contract was terminated.

“It was a mess,” George says. “They were completely dependent on the company for work, and had calculated their costs using the figures in the initial contract, so when these were renegotiated they couldn’t carry on.”

With the help of a union the couple took the company to court, and were awarded six months remuneration, plus costs. It was no more than a partial victory, as the promised right to on-sell the distribution contract was not reinstated, leaving the couple with no means of recovering the large sum they’d spent on the vehicles.

For George, a researcher at AUT University’s Work Research Institute, the case created a “huge sense of injustice”, and a determination to probe further into the structure and culture of the road transport industry, to see how these factors impacted the health, safety, and wellbeing (HSW) of drivers.

THE BIG PICTURE

Six years later the weighty PhD thesis she’s completed is one of the first in the world to examine the relationship between underlying industry factors – deregulation, competition, work organisation, employment relationships, pay structures, and job pressures – and prevailing problems such as poor driver health, recurrent safety infringements and unacceptably high accident rates.

Previous studies typically focused on issues in isolation, she says, and no one has really been looking at the big picture. As a result the interactions within the wider supply chain are poorly understood, and their influence on driver behaviour seldom acknowledged, or even recognised.

In this context, attempts to address industry problems have habitually blamed the issues – and foisted the proposed solutions – on drivers, disregarding the fact that the men and women behind the wheel have minimal control over work arrangements, and almost no ability to create change.

“Drivers operate at the end of a long and complex supply chain,” George says. “All their systems – pay, delivery timeframes and everything else – are controlled by the large companies, with drivers themselves having very little space for decision-making.”

Her probe into the industry’s problems began with driver contracts, but it quickly became apparent that the issues were more systemic, with employment relationships only one of many contributing factors.

To get an understanding of these she opted for a broad-based or systems approach, conducting a wide-ranging literature review, and interviewing a variety of industry stakeholders – 45 in all, including 20 drivers – who were invited to share their personal perspectives.

“They had free rein to talk about whatever was impacting their HSW, so all sorts of things came up – the role of managers, interactions between supervisors and dispatchers, road conditions, road infrastructure and even the behaviour of other drivers.

“It’s information nobody else has been collecting.”

DRIVERS SPEAK OUT

One of the hardest parts of this information-gathering process was getting access to drivers. For many of them, the best time to talk was while they were driving, but their long, unsociable hours meant George often had to conduct late night phone interviews, or join them in the cab for a night on the road.

“You can’t just go out with them for an hour or so and then leave. You have to be there for the whole shift – and on one occasion that was 15 hours. We started at 10pm and worked through to about 2.30pm the next day.”

In the course of that long night, the driver told of a lifestyle that involved punishing hours and constant pressure, from which he earned only enough to pay his staff and keep his trucks on the road, with nothing left for himself.

What was as disturbing as his words, however, was the glimpse the night gave her into the practical challenges he had to deal with every day.

“Before we left, one supermarket called to change his delivery timeslot, which meant an extra two hours work – in breach of his driving hour limits.

“During the whole 15 hours, he didn’t stop once to eat or go to the bathroom. And despite a heavily bandaged dislocated knee, he was dragging 100kg crates of bread across uneven surfaces in the middle of the night.”

He told George that when he was robbed a few months back, he was punished by the company to which he was contracted, and that, while he couldn’t really afford time off to get his knee fixed, the company had refused him permission to do so, even if he could.

“He desperately wanted to sell his business, but the principal was blocking that process too, because they wouldn’t sign off any of the people who wanted to buy it.”

By the end of the shift, she says, she was drained, and physically shattered.

“I was in la-la land. It took me days to recover – but he went home to work another few hours on the admin side of his business, then did the same thing all over again the next night.”

GOAL CONFLICTS

Many times during the 18-month interview process the stories George heard brought her close to tears. By the end, however, she had an almost daunting amount of material, which provided some new perspectives on well-known industry problems.

“I felt really responsible for all that information. These were stories that needed to be told.”

One of the big things to emerge from the interviews was the huge number of goal conflicts faced by both drivers and their managers, as safety and legal compliance frequently clashed with the need to do the job profitably and meet customer expectations.

“They know the work-time regulations and that they need rest breaks, but these things are often in direct conflict with the practicalities of just getting the job done – and sometimes even with keeping themselves in a job.

“At the big supermarkets, for instance, drivers get a half-hour window to deliver their goods, and if they miss it they go to the back of the queue.

“As a result they often end up spending their break time sitting in queues, which means it’s not a proper break for them. They can’t leave their trucks because they’re waiting for their names to be called.”

At the same time, low rates of pay provide a strong incentive for drivers to exceed legal driving-hour limits, with many interviewees regarding a 70-hour week as normal, and even necessary.

FOUR KEY FACTORS

Previously available literature has been able to offer little explanation for truck drivers’ persistent tendency to skip breaks and work beyond legal limits, so these insights are significant, not least because they show how industry factors influence drivers’ safety decisions.

“Many of the negative outcomes [for drivers] can be linked to four central aspects of the job: industry-wide competition, long hours, time pressure and low pay,” George says. “These underlying factors expose drivers to poor HSW.”

The thesis identifies a number of areas where “concerning and complex” interactions are giving rise to poor HSW outcomes, with the thorny question of driver health being one example.

It’s well known that truck drivers fare badly in terms of both morbidity and mortality, but this has often been regarded as the result of bad lifestyle choices rather than industry factors. George’s research, however, found that a large cycle of inter-related factors contribute to the problem:

  • • 
    Access to healthy food is limited by their hours of work, the difficulties of parking large vehicles, and the limited time available for breaks.
  • • 
    Work pressures and schedules create fatigue, so some drivers choose not to eat during trips, fearing it will make them sleepy.
  • • 
    Many also restrict fluid intake to avoid the need for toilet stops (or, as required by some principals, the need to pee into a bottle while driving).
  • • 
    By the end of a trip many are too tired to seek out healthy food, and opt for whatever is most easily available. Post-trip fatigue also prevents them getting exercise.

These factors in combination are likely to result in weight gain, which further increases fatigue and reduces the ability the exercise. Work schedules also make it difficult for them to get medical checks.

RACE TO THE BOTTOM

At the root of many of the negative industry influences is competition. A deregulated market has created ferocious competition for work, and stakeholders told George how reputable transport companies are losing business to those prepared to force down pay and conditions to, and sometimes beyond, legal minimums. The resulting pressure had compromised the ability of other organisations to fully adhere to the law

“Tight margins meant health and safety, training, wage increases and union membership, among other elements, were seen as luxuries, not afforded by those striving to remain competitive, while they often felt they had no choice but to work drivers to their maximum legal hours.

“Essentially a race to the bottom has resulted. The system is unsustainable.”

This situation has both been caused by, and resulted in, some major changes in the nature of the industry.

Transport companies are increasingly opting to engage workers under contract rather than take them on as employees – a move that, somewhat counter-intuitively, has shifted the power balance further in favour of the companies.

Rather than the traditional contracting model, where self-employed workers have a measure of choice about how, when, and where they sell their services, the road transport industry is characterised by so-called dependent contractors who, under the terms of their contract, are only permitted to work for one organisation. If they are owner-drivers they are usually required to paint their vehicle in the company’s livery, at their own expense.

“They lack both the ability that employees have to unionise, and the power of contractors to bargain effectively,” George says.

If disputes arise, the drivers’ contractor status denies them access to mediation services or the Employment Relations Authority, making much more expensive civil court action their only option to challenge the contractual relationship.

“The people I spoke to said about 70% of the industry are now contractors and owner drivers, although the statistics don’t back that up, which I think is testimony that there are some pretty blurry lines around who’s an employee and who’s contractor.

“When I interviewed a lawyer about this she just threw her hands in the air and said ‘They’re de facto employees, but have contractual status,’ so there is confusion in the industry about the numbers.”

LIVES ON THE LINE

If the industry’s problems are obvious, the solutions are much less so. George comments in her thesis that both the literature review and the personal interviews were noticeably short on success stories.

“Only one of the owner-drivers I spoke to was enjoying his job and felt that it was manageable. He said his family life wasn’t impacted, but he’d been divorced twice, and, in his words, now has a partner who ‘understands his job.’

As things stand, George admits she does not have a lot of hope that things will improve.

“I feel terrible saying that, but there’s a lot that’s got to change – starting with an awareness in the industry that things are worse than they think they are.

“Given the complexity of the industry it is a surprise, not only that things don’t go wrong more often, but that things do go right at all.”

One of her key findings is that there are still some huge knowledge gaps, and George is hoping other researchers will pick up where she’s left off and begin to fill in the blanks.

“This isn’t a normal PhD. A lot get put on a shelf and left, but I want very much to get this information to the right people, because there are a lot of obvious questions that have not yet been answered, or in some cases even asked. My hope is that my work will provide an evidence base that subsequent studies can work from.”

She points to the country’s heavy reliance on road transport, and the growing shortage of skilled drivers, as factors that cannot be ignored.

“I think the public has very little idea about what it takes to get their goods to the supermarkets – and just how quickly our country would shut down if all of the truck drivers went on strike.

“The drivers are doing an incredible job. They drive exhausted, they drive well beyond their time limits, they put their whole lives at risk to keep the industry going.

“That shows a huge sense of responsibility, but they are not compensated for it at all.”

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM

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