Most drivers have a degree of understanding about the dangers associated with driving, mainly the risks of being involved in a crash resulting in injury. Every day in the UK about seven people are killed in road crashes and hundreds more injured. Yet few people are aware that each year thousands of people also suffer from back and neck injuries caused, not through a collision, but as a result of how they sit in, or operate, their vehicles.
Driver ergonomics focuses on the health aspects of driving, drawing upon biology, psychology, engineering and design to create vehicle environments in which people have a lower chance of injury. Although ergonomics is not something that all drivers will be familiar with, it is one with which occupational health advisers (OHAs) should be concerned in order to prevent long-term injuries and time off sick.
The five most common RDIs were highlighted as foot cramp (suffered by 81% of respondents), lumbar pain (74%), a stiff neck (74%), side ache (74%) and headache/eye strain (73%). According to the study almost two million UK drivers started to suffer from these conditions after just 15 minutes of driving.
Risk of life-long injury
Nick Gkikas, vehicle ergonomist at Autonomics, the first ergonomics consultancy specialising in surface transportation and motorsport, points out that short-term conditions like these can lead to life-long suffering. “Repetitive short-term discomfort and complaints are associated with joint and muscle injuries in the long term,” he says. “There is well-established research evidence connecting short-term discomfort with injury and impairment later in our life. It sounds a bit of a cliché, but it is another case where early prevention is much preferable to treatment afterwards.”
Due to the way injuries can be caused within a vehicle, it is not only high-mileage drivers who are at risk. Anyone who drives regularly is at risk of suffering discomfort or injury within their vehicle. The main causes of injury within a vehicle are:
Sitting for long periods of time
Incorrect seating position
Making awkward twists and turns
Reaching into the footwell or rear of the vehicle
Manual handling/lifting of goods in and out of the vehicle
Incorrect posture when reaching into the boot
Vibration of the road surface.
The actual injuries suffered range in seriousness from minor discomfort to severe pain. Symptoms include:
‘Pins and needles’
Stiffness after a journey
Aching neck or shoulders
Chronic back pain
Deterioration of the health of the spine
Degeneration of spinal discs.
“As well as the more obvious symptoms, there are others, such as fatigue, which have very serious implications in road safety,” says Gkikas. “Driver fatigue is among the prominent contributors to fatal accidents on the road.
“The posture which a vehicle allows (or imposes on) the driver is not irrelevant to fatigue, but the key factor is how time behind the wheel is controlled by professional drivers and the management team.
“Pressure for results, profits and on-time delivery often leads to prolonged hours on the road and increased accident probability. This is a critical issue and something businesses should seek advice on.”
As OH advisers will already be aware, companies must by law have in place risk assessments and company policies relating to any work-related activities that carry an element of risk.
Failure to incorporate driver ergonomics into occupational health and safety policies can lead to back problems and other injuries which, in turn, are likely to result in more time off work.
In fact, the Health and Safety Executive has discovered that people who drive more than 25,000 miles a year have an average of 22 days off with sickness compared with just over three days for low mileage drivers. A proportion of these are likely to be a result of injuries caused in-vehicle, rather than injuries caused in a crash. OH advisers should work with those in charge of fleet management to introduce control measures which aim to reduce the risk of injury as far as reasonably practicable.
As with any health and safety scheme, the starting point for the implementation of a driver ergonomics programme should be risk assessment. OH should consider the driving activities of employees – including miles driven each week, time spent in the vehicle, and activities required of the employee (such as loading and unloading of goods). It should then consider the suitability of the vehicle for the job. This includes checking that it ‘fits’ the employee (ie, don’t expect a six-foot driver to squash into a tiny car without enough leg room) and is suitable for their needs.
Staff should also be provided with ergonomic instructions relating to the vehicle they will be driving (see end of article).
One company which is aware of the importance of incorporating driver ergonomics issues into its safety policies is BT. The company, which has about 70,000 drivers, has included generic ergonomics training within its overall driver health and safety strategy. Further specific tailored advice is given to anyone who complains of discomfort as a result of driving.
Group safety adviser at BT, Dave Wallington, says: “The training we provide is aimed at people already having problems or those spending a lot of time behind the wheel, so who are judged to be more at risk. The main aim of our health and safety strategy is to reduce the exposure to risk by reducing the number of miles our employees drive, but we also incorporate ergonomics training into the strategy to make sure the drivers know how to help themselves.
“Without training, many drivers sit in their vehicles in an inappropriate way, so we focus on issues such as sitting correctly and better posture – all things the drivers can do to help themselves.”
The driver ergonomics training at BT forms part of a wider strategy aimed at maintaining the health and wellbeing of employees – and in turn reducing the number of sick days per employee.
Another company which values the health of its drivers is Wolseley UK, a distributor of heating and plumbing products with more than 5,000 commercial vehicles and cars. Paul Gallemore, European head of health, safety, environment and quality at Wolseley, says: “We take a proactive approach to employee health, and communicate with all our drivers through newsletters, handbooks and via the use of online training.
“We work closely with occupational health providers to review the working environment and the individual. We have learned that focusing on the health of the driver forms a large part of maintaining their overall safety, as looking at issues such as driver eyesight, substance abuse, driver fatigue etc – all health-related issues – can help to prevent collisions and, in turn, prevent injuries.”
Several companies offer training and products which can be incorporated into occupational health strategies. BT uses several products provided by Interactive Driving Systems, a provider of fleet management solutions.
Will Murray, fleet management academic and research director at Interactive Driving Systems, says: “Our experience shows that driver ergonomics is a massive issue for organisations all over the world, and one which should be considered in vehicle selection decisions and driver wellbeing programmes.”
Murray recommends that an occupational health ‘driver ergonomics’ programme should consider:
Choosing a vehicle
When selecting a vehicle it is important that the person who will be driving it has a chance to sit in it and have a test drive.
Be aware that different manufacturers offer different features in vehicles, some of which will suit some drivers more than others.
Remember that every individual driver has different ergonomic needs depending on their size, the type of driving they do and their annual mileage.
Getting into the vehicle
Position the seat as far back as possible to provide you with more room as you step into the vehicle.
Once seated, slide the seat forwards until you can easily reach and press the pedals without stretching. There should be a slight gap (about an inch) between the back of your knees and the edge of the seat. Your thighs should be straight and your knees should be level with your hips.
The seat should be wider than your hips and thighs to provide support for your legs.
Consider seat material. Leather seats can be slippery and can lead to slouched positions. Fabric is the most suitable for comfortable driving.
A good seat should be padded enough to limit the vibrations from the road. Exposure to vibrations on a long journey can lead to tiredness and long-term exposure can lead to injury.
If the height of the seat is adjustable, position it so that you can see the dashboard easily and have a clear view of the road. Do not position it so high that your head is almost touching the roof – this could lead to a greater impact on your skull in the event of a collision.
Adjust the back of the seat so that it is in contact with your body up to shoulder height. A correctly positioned seat should provide support along the full length of your back.
Don’t recline the seat too far as this is likely to result in you having to hold your head and neck forwards.
Protect your neck
Position the head restraint so that the top of it is level with the top of your ears. This is particularly important for helping prevent whiplash injury in the event of a rear-end collision, the most common type of collision.
Position the steering wheel
Adjust the steering wheel so that you can rest your wrists on it without stretching.
Make sure it is not positioned too close to your legs and knees as there is a risk this could obstruct your movement when operating the pedals.
Aid your vision
Position the rear view and side mirrors so that you can use them without straining your neck or twisting your body.
Keep windows clean and clear at all times to avoid unnecessary blind spots.
Your driving position
Rest your elbows close to your body, with your shoulders relaxed.
Think about your posture while driving. Relax your muscles and keep your head upright.
Any position – even a good one – can become uncomfortable after a long period, so try to vary your position very slightly during a journey and avoid keeping your muscles fixed for long.
Exercise your muscles
When stopped at traffic lights or stuck in a jam, try to relieve tension by exercising your muscles. This could include raising your shoulders up and down, pushing your shoulders backwards into the seat and back again, or tilting your neck to each side. Take deep breaths while performing these exercises, but don’t take your eyes off the road.
Take regular breaks
Stop for a break of at least 15 minutes for every two hours of driving. Get out during each break and stretch your legs.
Only use your car for driving – do not use it as an office. Doing paperwork or using a laptop while sitting in your vehicle will cause you to lean forwards and hunch over, resulting in poor posture and an aching back.
Never use a mobile phone while driving. Not only is this illegal and dangerous, but cradling a mobile phone between your ear and shoulder causes you to hold your shoulder and neck in an awkward position.
If you intend to use a hands-free mobile phone, make sure you position the speaker in a place that does not require you to lean over and twist your spine in order to use it.
Store items correctly
Any items you carry in your vehicle – such as a briefcase or coat – should be placed in the boot, rather than on a back seat or in the foot well. This prevents you having to twist or stretch awkwardly to retrieve the items and removes the risk of objects flying forward in the event of a crash.
Place drinks bottles in seat pockets or drinks holders to prevent them moving around or causing you to stretch to retrieve them.
Getting out of your vehicle
Unfasten your seat belt and ensure it is fully retracted so it does not restrict your movement.
Push the seat back fully.
Turn your whole body towards the door and raise your legs from the foot well.
Place your feet on the ground, shoulder-width apart.
Lean your head and shoulders forwards as you stand up, holding onto the door frame for support if necessary.
Don’t twist your body as you leave the car.
Take care when loading/unloading the vehicle.
You are much more likely to sustain a lifting injury immediately after driving when muscles are tired and ligaments are stretched. Take a few minutes to rest before attempting any lifting or carrying.
Prepare your back before lifting. Stand upright with your hands in the small of your back and arch gently backwards a few times.
Bend your knees as you reach into your vehicle – not your back.
Avoid twisting your body. Make any turns using your whole body.
Don’t overload yourself. Make several trips if necessary.
Carry items close to your body.
Ask someone to help with heavy items.
If you need to retrieve anything from the back seat, always reach for it using the back door – never try to reach for anything from the front seat.
1 ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’, eBayMotors.co.uk
Health & Safety Executive
Take the Pain out of Driving, 2001, The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
Avoiding Driver’s Backpain, Dean Southall Consultancy, Croner Publisher
Autonomics Consulting, www.autonomics-consulting.co.uk
Interactive Driving Systems, www.virtualriskmanager.net