How to Improve Bus Driver Health

A view of Pacific Electric Car 717, which used to operate the downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood and San Fernando Valley route. Christopher MacKechnie

Four Ways to Improve Bus Driver Health

Bus driving is one of the most hazardous occupations for your health. Research has shown that bus drivers have higher rates of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and musculoskeletal disorders than other occupations. If you have ever experienced road rage then you can understand that bus driving can increase blood pressure and the level of stress hormones, and this does not even consider the all-too-likely prospect of getting assaulted by passengers.

The hazardous nature of being a bus driver is reflected in occupational outcomes. A paper published by the International Labor Office in Geneva, Switzerland notes that between 1974 and 1977 only 7% of all the drivers that left their jobs in West Berlin retired while 90% of drivers who worked at least eighteen years left due to poor health. In addition, of the 1,672 city bus drivers in the Netherlands who left their jobs between 1978 and 1985 only 11% retired while 28.8% left due to medical disability. Absenteeism rates are generally two or three times higher than what is found in other professions.

One major reason why bus drivers incur poor health outcomes is that to be a bus driver means having to deal with several competing and conflicting demands. For example, as a driver you are expected to safely navigate often congested streets while simultaneously keeping to a timetable and providing excellent customer service .

Another reason is that bus drivers rarely work hours that other working people do based on the fact that they need to already be at work to take others to work. With most shifts either starting around 5 AM or ending around 7 PM, is it any wonder that bus drivers suffer from sleeping disorders at rates higher than other occupations?

  Also, since most drivers shifts start before or end after meal periods, proper nutrition is a problem.  Vending machines or the fast food place at the relief point become a substitute for healthy eating.  Shift times also make it difficult to find time to exercise. Finally, many driver complain of low autonomy; while they may appear to be "masters of their domain" they operate under a very strict set of rules and are now constantly monitored by video camera.

Fortunately, there are several things we can do to improve driver health. Even better, many transit agencies have implemented one of the following ways to improve driver health in the past few years.

Ways to Improve Driver Health

 

  1. Improve the driver area : First, by improving the adjustability of the seat and steering wheel, we make it easier for coach operators of all sizes to drive in a comfortable position. Padded seats with lumbar supports help to prevent back problems. One innovative idea is to provide drivers with heated seats similar to those found on higher-end automobiles. The heated seats help the muscles to relax, reducing the possibility of injury.  Second, the installation of driver enclosures can help to protect drivers from passenger assaults, but transit agencies should proceed carefully since those enclosures, by "walling off" the passenger from the driver, can lower the customer experience.
  1. Improve the driving shift : Drivers, almost along amongst all workers, cannot use the restroom whenever they like. While many transit agencies allow drivers to stop along the route and use the restroom, many choose not to do so out of a desire to not inconvenience their passengers. By providing adequate running and layover time , we allow drivers time to use the restroom at the end of each trip, thereby avoiding health problems such as bladder infections. Also important is to provide the driver with regular runs and days off; this is the practice in North America (with the exception of extraboard drivers ) but is uncommon in Europe. In terms of the extraboard, if a rotation is used then the first day of each workweek should have the earliest shift and the last day should have the latest shift. Many union contracts codify this practice. Finally, straight shifts are better for health than split shifts. While we will never be able to completely eliminate split shifts, we can reduce their number through such means as employing more part-time drivers.
  1. Improve supervision : While many drivers enjoy the fact that their normal working environment is free from bosses constantly looking over their shoulder, others feel abandoned by management. By assigning groups of twenty or so drivers to individual supervisors and having regular meetings, drivers feel more supported and that they have a point of management contact to which to voice their comments and concerns and learn about new management initiatives.
  2. Make it easier for bus drivers to be healthy.  At the very least, provide an exercise room at the garage that drivers can use in-between shifts.  Also, consider bringing back company cafeterias.  Any additional expenses incurred by entering the food business will likely be compensated by reduced driver illness and health problems.  Some transit agencies offer instruction on nutrition, perhaps through annual required training sessions.

Overall

Overall, due to the unique nature of the job we will never be able to completely eliminate all the factors that make bus driving unhealthier than other job choices. However, by offering the driver more support - both physically and emotionally - and by allowing them time to take care of basic bodily functions we can go a long way to reducing the risk factors. Spending money on implementing the above recommendations to improve driver health will be viewed as well-spent when the recommendations reduce absenteeism, one of the five top employment issues in transit , and improve customer service.

  To learn first-hand about bus driver health, check out this account.