Employers have been slow to recognise driving as a major risk factor to staff. But with shocking new statistics, practitioners are being forced to sit up and take notice
When George Orwell was researching the coal industry in the 1930’s he was shocked to discover a rubber stamp with the legend “Death Stoppage” used to mark service records. Casualties in the coal mines were taken for granted almost as they would be in a minor war.
But times change, and as Health and Safety Executive/Department of Transport figures reveal, spending long hours behind the wheel today is just as hazardous as working down a coal mine. So it makes sense to treat the dangers as any other workplace hazard.
The Government has made a start. In March, health and safety minister Lord Whitty promised a “highway code” for employers who have staff drivers.
In its road safety document the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions conceded, “We do not have reliable statistics about casualties connected with work-related traffic accidents. But company cars are more frequently involved in accidents and the number of people killed as a consequence of work activities, including driving, on our roads, could be significant.”
A government task force is to draw up minimum standards for employers with driving staff, and look at closer liaison between health and safety officers and those responsible for road safety.
The TUC would go further, arguing that, as in other dangerous occupations, employers should have a safety certificate before being allowed to let staff clock up the miles. It has launched a major document on the issue, Driven to Death. Increasingly, unions offer legal services for members injured in road accidents.
“We want employers to play their part,” says TUC general secretary John Monks. “Some have negotiated excellent agreements with their unions to deal with the risks involved in driving for work. Others need the clarification of the existing common law duty of care.”
Road safety experts predict it is only a matter of time before an employer has to pay a huge sum to a widow whose husband was forced to drive excessive hours.
The statistics are sobering. About 300 of the 1,200 drivers killed on Britain’s roads each year are driving for work. To put that in context, the number of train drivers killed in a year is in single figures, and is sometimes zero, as in 1998.
Yet driving a company car is not seen as being a safety-critical occupation. “The car is not seen as a risk factor in a job,” says Gail Cotton, president of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners. “Some companies are aware of the dangers but most are not.”
OH consultant Cynthia Atwell adds, “It is the most lethal piece of equipment one ever gets into. I would like to see a restriction on the number of hours that anyone can drive. There is a restriction on HGV drivers, with the tachograph, but people like you or I could drive all day for work if we wanted to.
“My experience shows that a lot of people will get up very early in the morning, go on site, do eight, nine or 10 hours’ work and then drive for two, three or four hours. This is totally unacceptable. I do not think any employer should expect people to do that.
“Some people say they are happy to do that and it does not affect them. I would argue that if you were tested for reactions you would not get a good result.”
Atwell also wonders how many important decisions are made by business leaders following a long day and a long drive. “It clearly needs to be looked at more in relation to when people do have accidents. It brings in the issue of drugs – not just drugs of abuse but prescribed or over-the-counter drugs,” she adds.
Atwell recommends that drugs-testing procedures should be extended to people driving company cars for long periods, much as they are in place for train drivers. Though she adds, “I think that will be contentious as people who drive company cars tend to be more senior management positions, and that probably would not go down well.”
Occupational health advisers need to point out the dangers to the rest of the company and encourage the establishment of a driving policy. This would set maximum journey lengths, above which the driver should be able to book into a hotel, and maximum stints at the wheel without a break. “People need to know what is expected of them,” says Atwell.
Moreover, the guidelines must be reflected in timetables and working arrangements, so that they are not merely a statement of intent with little real effect. “There is pressure on drivers to make meetings; there are time management and organisational issues,” says Cotton.
She adds that there are dozens of serious health risks associated with driving for long periods, in addition to the dangers of accidents. The two issues are linked, as some ailments such as stress or poor vision heighten the risk of a crash.
Road safety pressure group Brake carried out a survey two years ago which found that two in three people admitted having fallen asleep at the wheel. About half of those interviewed had nodded off while driving more than twice during the year before the survey. “Professional drivers and company car drivers are particularly at risk, due to the high mileages they travel,” the agency concluded.
Loughborough University has carried out research which concluded that tiredness is responsible for up to 20 per cent of serious crashes on monotonous roads, such as motorways. Yet many drivers exaggerate their capacity and stamina.
“A car has to be serviced regularly but you do not bother about the driver,” says Cotton. “Men especially would not keep a car without a regular service but they are quite happy to run their own bodies doing none of those things. You need to do an MoT for the body as part of the risk assessment.
Driving for long periods can cause or aggravate poor health, Cotton argues. “We have people driving as part of their job, so should we not assess their fitness to drive?”
Even road rage comes into the equation. It is more likely that a tired, stressed individual flies into a fit of temper than someone who is relaxed – especially if he or she is in physical pain.