Driving the message home

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.  By Philip Whiteley

When George Orwell was researching the coal industry in the 1930s 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 work at the coal face. And in the construction or agriculture industries it
is more dangerous to go to work than in a coal mine.

It is, therefore, logical that the dangers start to be treated as any other
workplace hazard.

Highway code

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 occupational standards for
employers with driving staff, and to look at closer liaison between health and
safety officers and those responsible for road safety.

The TUC would go further, arguing that, just as in other dangerous
occupations, employers should have to have a safety certificate before being
permitted to let employees 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.

Road safety experts predict that it is only a question of time before an
employer has to pay a huge sum to a widow whose husband had been forced to
drive excessive hours.

"We want employers to play their part," said TUC general secretary
John Monks. "Some have negotiated excellent agreements with their trade
unions to deal with the risks involved in driving for work. Others need the
clarification of the existing common law duty of care."

Sobering statistics

The statistics are sobering. Around 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 (as in 1998) zero.

Yet driving a company car is simply not seen as being a safety-critical
occupation. "The car is not seen as a risk factor in a job," said
Gail Cotton, president of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse
Practitioners. "Some companies are aware of the dangers, but the majority
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 to site, do eight, nine or ten hours’ work and then drive for
two, three or four hours. This is totally unacceptable. I do not think that any
employer should expect people to do that.

"Some people will say they are happy to do that, and it does not affect
them. I would argue that if you tested for reactions you would not get as good
a result."

She wonders also 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."

Driving policy

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," Atwell says.

Moreover, the guidelines must be reflected in the timetables and working
arrangements, so that they do not remain 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 of the AOHNP.

Cotton 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 like stress or poor vision heighten the
risk of a crash.

The 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. Just over half of those interviewed had nodded of while driving more
than twice in the year prior to the survey. "Professional drivers and
company car drivers are particularly at risk, due to the high mileages that
they travel," the agency concluded.

Fitness levels

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. "I find this especially talking to men – they
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.

"If someone has high blood pressure and headaches, are they going to be
able to concentrate on long journeys?"

While HGV drivers have to have a regular medical check-up, there is no such
requirement for company car drivers.

Driving for long periods can cause or aggravate poor health, Cotton argues.
"I feel quite strongly about people driving, from a health point of view.
We have people driving people as part of their job. Should we not be assessing
their fitness to drive?"

She lists the ailments, which sound like a doctor’s waiting room (see box
above), and can include quite serious musculo-skeletal problems, particularly
where the ergonomics are poor. But there are indirect ones too, said Cotton.
"People tend to snatch meals. This has an effect on the digestive system.
Many have a lack of exercise, and this exacerbates the postural
difficulties."

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.

Such is the nation’s love affair with the car, however, that there is a huge
psychological barrier that health and safety officers have to overcome. The car
is seen as a status symbol, a source of fun, a space for thought or discussion,
but never a danger.

www.tuc.org.uk  www.detr.gov.uk

The task force – what will it do?

– Establish accurate statistics on casualties due to work-related driving

– Establish the main causes of accidents

– Agree minimum standards for employers

– Promote liaison between health and safety officers and road safety
organisations

– Propose mechanisms to dovetail road traffic law with health and safety law

– Launch a discussion document on preventing work-related road casualties
and arrange a conference

– Consider an occupational highway code.

The task force will have an independent chairperson, and its membership will
be drawn from those with responsibility for road safety, police and the courts,
the Health & Safety Executive, employers, employee groups and those
representing the public interest.

For a copy of Tomorrow’s Roads – Safer for Everyone call 0870 1226 236

High-mileage ailments 

– Varicose veins

– Neck and back problems

– Haemorrhoids

– Stress

– Headaches

– Impaired vision

– Musculoskeletal effects

– Digestive problems

Source: Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners

Dangerous occupations

Annual average probability of occupational fatality

Agriculture                                1
in 13,500

Construction                             1 in 10,000

Driver (25,000 miles per year)  1 in
8,000

Coal mining                              1 in 7,100

Deep sea fishing                        1 in 750

Source: HSE/ Department of Transport

 

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