Driver shortages have been a major concern in the industry for years; yet every year tens of thousands of drivers are disqualified for failing the Department of Transportation’s biannual physical tests.
The number of drivers disqualified last year due to failing their physiques, according to data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, was nearly 350,000, driver welfare advocate Bob Perry told FleetOwner. That number doesn’t include drivers who take medical leave or who have to leave the industry entirely due to health issues before they can get a medical qualification from a DOT examiner.
“I tell all carriers,” Perry said, that “I don’t know which program is right for you, but I know which program is wrong, and that would be nothing.”
An aging driver population means less healthy, and the sedentary lifestyle of driving dozens of hours a week, coupled with mostly unhealthy food options at truck stops, causes rampant hypertension and diabetes among the trucking population .
Perry, known as “Trucker Trainer,” helped develop the Fit to Pass fitness program, designed to prepare drivers for DOT physiques. Fit to Pass identifies medically unqualified or at-risk drivers and offers resources, including one-on-one onsite or remote coaching sessions, as well as exercise equipment and meal plans.
He said the large number of medical disqualifications from trucking is a worsening problem. 55% of drivers have a short-term card of 90 days or a year, compared to 50% of drivers before the pandemic. Perry said he spoke to fleets whose number of drivers on short-term cards was 58%, as well as a carrier that, of its pool of 200 truckers, had 70% of its drivers on short-term cards.
Gulf Relay renews its culture of well-being
In 2021, Mississippi-based airline Gulf Relay lost four drivers because they were unable to pass physical checks. COO Andy Vanzant knew something had to change if the company was to save the $7,000 or more needed to hire each new driver.
In January, Gulf Relay began by identifying which of its 225 drivers had physical exams coming up in the next 90 days. The company then offered help with the truckers’ diet and exercise regimes through Fit to Pass. Of the five drivers who were most at risk of failing their physiques, two started using Fit to Pass to improve their health, and those two have seen success getting a one-year health card.
After this modest success, Gulf Relay began investing more in monitoring the health of its drivers, essentially retaining drivers as you would equipment. Each month, Gulf Relay talks to its drivers who are within 90 days of a physical exam to evaluate what can be done to improve their chances of overtaking.
Because Gulf Relay has fostered a culture that emphasizes wellness, it has incorporated a health focus into guidance for new motorists. Each orientation session has a 30-minute block dedicated to Fit to Pass offerings, where a representative explains the options available to drivers, including devising a personalized diet and exercise plan. Of the 150 drivers who are on the road weekly, about 20 take advantage of personalized meal plans, but Vanzant said “that number is much higher than it used to be.” The Fit to Pass representative also visits the site three times a week to answer any questions drivers might have and to offer advice.
Gulf Relay has also invested in specialized healthcare equipment. Drivers can use a machine to measure their vitals, which are recorded in a company spreadsheet. There is a gym for any employee to use. However, there is the matter of accessibility, as Gulf Relay is a multi-building operation.
Another problem is that different aspects of a carrier – security, operations, recruitment – are “isolated” from each other, rarely communicating. As a carrier expands, these departments can be in different buildings miles apart, and physical distance acts not only as a barrier to amenities like a company gym but, more importantly, conversations about driver health.
Vanzant emphasized that to establish a culture of well-being across the company, it must start at the top and work its way down. No problem, he said she, will come to the fore if it is not talked about behind closed doors.
The carrier is conducting its second annual Weight Loss Challenge, which all staff can participate in, to raise awareness and help nurture that culture. Gulf Relay pays $10 per pound lost and $500 to the employee who loses the most weight. Workers are required to check in weekly, measure vitals, and respond to a coaching call with a Fit to Pass representative. Thirteen completed the challenge last year after an initial enrollment of 31, and this year, 16 are looking to complete it.
Vanzant said, “I’m not going to say, ‘We just saved $100,000 because we made people lose 80 pounds!’ They are not. What I’m telling you is that there’s more awareness about that, that I think we’ll have gains in year two, year three and beyond.
“It’s changed the culture of what we do.”