Air crew are already subject to mental well-being regulations - and these could be on  the way soon for the road haulage industry

The mental well-being of truck drivers, and the consequences of associated fatigue, is neither a new issue in the industry nor much talked about – the culture has always been that a driver’s health is down to the individual. But this attitude is under pressure. Following a review set-up by prime minister Theresa May in January 2017, the Health and Safety Executive has been asked to update its guidance to raise employer awareness of their duty to assess and manage work-related mental ill-health. Employers already have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it. Expect to hear more when Business in the Community publishes the findings of its National Employee Mental Wellbeing Survey next month – World Mental Health Day is on October 10. “We are on the cusp of a change similar to that seen with the corporate responsibility movement in the mid-1990s,” according to management consultancy Deloitte.

Road haulage has all the hallmarks of a target market. It is a heavily regulated, safety-critical sector where drivers often work long and irregular hours under stress.

Industry parallels

There are several close parallels between driving trucks  and flying aircraft, according to Paul Jackson, head of impairment at TRL, the international consultancy that was at one time part of the DfT. Twenty years ago, Jackson was at the DfT, supervising research into driving  under the influence of drugs. He then set-up the Awake  programme at the Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre, which worked on the importance of circadian sleep rhythms (the human 24-hour body clock) and their significance in road haulage, before spending 15 years in aviation consultancy, working with easyJet and other European airlines. He also set up BP’s global lorry driver fatigue training programme. Jackson seeks to apply this experience through TRL’s  Driver Mental Well-being Programme, which analyses  the major contributors to poor well-being. These are:

  • operational practices (policies, procedures, workload work arrangements, KPIs);
  • work/roster patterns (timing and duration of shifts, breaks, rest days, use of overtime); and
  • personal contributors (lifestyle, health, home issues,  sleep patterns). 

“We collect data to help clients understand these contributors, then work with them to identify appropriate mitigations. This approach can have a significant impact on safety, performance, collision rates, sickness, absenteeism and retention,” Jackson says. “The life of a professional driver can be stressful, with high levels of fatigue resulting from tight schedules, early starts five days in a row and multiple consecutive duties. We are setting drivers up for a situation where they become fatigued and try to disguise that.”

Fatigue training

Airlines had new legal responsibilities imposed on them by European regulation in 2011. There are two levels: basic compliance requires pilots and cabin crew to  undergo fatigue training, and for the issue to be managed, while a second, optional level involves a full Fatigue Risk Management System (FRMS), in which the employer collects data, identifies causes of fatigue and strategies for fatigue management. Jackson worked with easyJet to develop its FRMS in the mid-2000s. It used bio-mathematical modelling of schedules and compared the results to data gathered from employees through questionnaires and from body-worn performance-monitoring technology – somelike like a sophisticated Fitbit. 

The primary motivation for easyJet was not staff retention, improved quality of life or lower insurance premiums – although all of these cost-reducing benefits should emerge. Its main driver was regulatory. Restrictions are imposed on the number of early starts crew members can make because the early morning is a time of circadian low – the body is programmed to sleep, and alertness and performance are degraded.

Managing risk

Crews were normally limited by regulation to three early starts per week. By using its FRMS, the airline was able to demonstrate it was managing risk effectively and as a result it gained a derogation from the Civil Aviation Authority that allowed five early starts. This increased flexibility has been an important element in the success and growth of the business, enabling easyJet to operate its short-haul network more efficiently. It now has 10 staff working on its FRMS programme and many other airlines have taken a similar path, Jackson says.
There are striking parallels, and intriguing differences, 
between aviation and road haulage. The safety implications of poor mental health and increased fatigue are less catastrophic with drivers than with pilots – but serious and fatal accidents involving trucks are all too common; even more so are the relatively minor bumps that drive up insurance premiums.
So, could a lorry operator win greater operating freedom under drivers’ hours? There is no current flexibility under drivers’ hours regulation EU561/2006 to allow derogation but in a post-Brexit world, who knows? The DVSA’s evolving Earned Recognition scheme could become a platform well suited to enabling such a change in future. 

Sharing responsibility

What of the responsibility of customers? That is not an issue in aviation, but customer demands are a strong factor in the reality of truck drivers’ conditions. EU 561/2006 (Article 10.4) is very weak when it comes to imposing legal duties on customers. But in Australia, a 2018 Chain of Responsibility law means that any party in the supply chain with influence over the transport operation has 
responsibility for road safety and requires a proactive management of risk. Jackson’s TRL Programme goes further than most in challenging firms to look at how their operations impact driver mental health and well-being and it may highlight some uncomfortable challenges. But it raises the sort of questions the industry, its customers and probably also government should be looking at – especially at a time of growing concern about the industry’s ability to recruit and 
retain the drivers it needs to service the economy.

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