by Heindrich Wyngaard

Trucking wellness

Taking healthcare on the road

Long distance wellness
Taking health on the road

Mention long distance truck drivers in any conversation and in most cases it will conjure up images of Hollywood movies or television programmes. They portray truck drivers with cigarettes in their mouths while speeding down a freeway or in city peak hour traffic.

Turning to local – real life – situations, we see many long distance drivers as those who live on fizzy drinks and unhealthy food.

We regard them with a certain amount of disdain as they make life difficult for us minnows driving in small cars or bakkies on any of South Africa’s freeways or in inner city traffic. Long distance truck drivers are at times, the cause of many of the serious accidents – sometimes involving other vehicles, such as passenger busses or minibus taxis; other times claiming the lives only of the driver.

However, when you switch off the television or walk out of the movies or while you are spitting expletives at a truck driver, you may not always be aware of all the risks which they face. These are particularly with regards to matters of personal health and wellbeing. It is putting a once stable industry of some 70 000 drivers under threat, causing a shortened life span of the workforce that leads to a constant search to replace drivers. High absenteeism, disability and death, have increased, according to industry insiders.

One should consider the nature of their jobs. This involves long, exhausting hours on the road, which they often do alone. That translates into extreme feelings of fatigue and loneliness. It also means, generally speaking, only stopping briefly for bathroom breaks and then waiting for night to fall for an overnight rest.

Most of the truck drivers’ working hours are therefore spend behind the steering wheel, taking products to clients, often against strict delivery deadlines. Being late means losing money; and losing money could result in losing one’s job. Of course, that is no excuse for reckless driving, but it may explain why some drivers are often seen speeding or acting in an ‘unfriendly’ manner towards their fellow road users.

Even more concerning is the fact that those long hours on the road – sometimes without stopping for a ‘lunch break’ but instead having a bite on the go – makes truck drivers prone to chronic diseases, or ‘silent killers’, such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and even tuberculosis. Then, of course, there is the other big danger which they fall prey to. Truck drivers are tempted to seek the company of sex workers and in the process, they contract STIs (sexually transmitted diseases) and HIV/Aids. These are often carried over to their own sex partners or wives at home.

The good news however, is that something is being done to create awareness among the truck drivers about the dangers of the aforementioned diseases. They are receiving treatment for it and employers are ensuring that they lead healthy lifestyles.

Credit for this initiative should go to the Trucking Wellness Programme that was launched in 1999 by the National Bargaining Council for the Road Freight Industry (NBCEFI). The aim was specifically to create awareness around HIV/Aids and STIs among long-distance truck drivers and commercial sex workers.

The move was motivated by the fact that these are two of the groups often blamed for the spreading of HIV in South Africa and across our borders to neighbouring countries, such as Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Originally called Trucking Against Aids, the wellness programme have already secured the establishment of at least 20 wellness centres in all provinces along the national trucking routes in the country, Epping in the Cape Peninsula being the latest addition. It was at the launch of this centre in 2011 that Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said: “We are fully aware of the dangers that long distance truck drivers are exposed to as a result of being away from their spouses for longer periods. It becomes important therefore that we provide them with primary health care services including counselling as part of minimising the risks of getting STIs and in turn put their spouses at risk.”

The centres normally consists of two containers, one fully equipped with medication and qualified health workers who provides health care and counselling; the other used as an awareness and training facility.

The numbers look encouraging: close to 400 000 patients have already received education at the centres while about 150 000 were treated at the centres, one third of them for STIs.

More than 10 million condoms have also reportedly been distributed since the year 2000 at centres along the main artery of the long distance truck industry - from Villiers on the N3, Port Elizabeth on the N2, Beaufort West on the N1 to the Beit Bridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

It is Motsoaledi’s wish that wellness centres are established at every border post and port, as well as that all the major roads and routes in South Africa should be covered by this intervention.

What is also needed, according to the minister, is a change of mindset so that truck drivers and sex workers would be willing to talk openly about their HIV status as he had found their counterparts in Bangalore in India doing.

The seriousness with which investing in the wellness of long distance truck drivers is considered by the industry is illustrated by the involvement of a wide range of partners, including the industry bargaining council NBCRFI, Mercedes-Benz, national and provincial departments of health, Engen, trade union Satawu, Shell and the South African Business Coalition on HIV and Aids (SABCOHA).

Engen spokesperson Tania Landsberg changed into the correct gear when she noted at this year’s launch of the national driver wellness campaign in Kimberley that the initiative was aimed at “raising awareness around health issues that have a direct impact on road safety by helping drivers to manage their wellness better”.

And at the launch of the campaign at Kranskop, near Bela-Bela in Limpopo, the Modimolle mayor Kgaretja Lekalakala added her voice, saying: “This campaign enables drivers to make well informed decisions with a direct bearing on their well-being, and will help to make our roads safer, as we know the drivers are in good health”.

It is generally accepted that trucking drives the South African economy – in the absence of a well-oiled rail system – hence the emphasis on the well-being of the key figures in the trucking industry, namely the long distance truck drivers.

One can do a market survey and will find one element that all the brands and related industries have in common, and that is the driver,” Mercedes-Benz’s Kobus van Zyl was quoted as saying in 2010. “The driver cannot be automated, and we cannot do without skilled and experienced drivers.”

But the responsibility also lies with the drivers themselves when it comes to taking responsibility for their wellness.

We must make our call to long distance drivers to take the necessary precautions on the road,” said former Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele earlier.”

Mercedes-Benz’s Kobus van Zyl summed it up appropriately when he said in 2010: “You cannot buy experience, and if the the trucks stop, the economy stops.”

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