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

Most employers understand that employees need breaks, which is why they allow for at least two a day, even if not federally mandated. But what about bus drivers? It's not like they can just hop off the bus any time they want, not even to use the restroom. 

An Unhealthy Vocation

No breaks is just one reason why bus driving is considered an unhealthy job. A number of studies have shown that bus drivers in the U.S. and elsewhere have higher rates of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and musculoskeletal disorders than other workers. If you have ever experienced road rage you might imagine just how stressful bus driving can be, with negative impacts on blood pressure and stress hormone levels—not to mention the all-too-likely prospect of getting assaulted by passengers.

A Number of Hazards

One major reason why bus drivers incur poor health outcomes is that they regularly deal with several competing and conflicting demands. For example, they 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 normal 9-to-5 days because they need to be on the job before transporting passengers to theirs. With most shifts either starting around 5 a.m. or ending around 7 p.m., is it any wonder that bus drivers suffer from sleep disorders at rates higher than other occupations? 

Also, since most driver shifts start before or end after meal periods, proper nutrition is a problem. Vending machine fare and fast food have become a substitute for healthy meals. Shift times also make it difficult to find time to exercise. 

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

Better Seating

Adjusting the seat and steering wheel make it easier for coach operators of all sizes to drive in a comfortable position. Padded seats with lumbar supports help prevent back problems. One innovative idea is to provide drivers with heated seats similar to those found on higher-end automobiles. Heated seats help relax the muscles, reducing the possibility of injury. The installation of enclosures can help protect drivers from passenger assaults, although the downside of "walling off" passengers from drivers is decreased customer interaction.

Flexible Shifts

While many transit agencies allow their employees to stop along the route and use the restroom, many drivers choose not to inconvenience their passengers by stopping. Providing adequate running and layover time will allow drivers to use the restroom comfortably, thereby avoiding health problems such as bladder infections. Also important is to provide drivers with regular runs and days off; this is the practice in North America (with the exception of extra-board drivers) but is uncommon in Europe. In terms of the extra board, 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 by employing more part-time drivers.

Improved Supervision

While many drivers enjoy the fact that their normal working environment is free from bosses constantly looking over their shoulder, others feel isolated from their colleagues and management. Most have no way to voice their concerns, make suggestions for improvements, and learn about new company initiatives. Assigning groups of 20 or so drivers to individual supervisors and holding regular meetings will give drivers the support they seek while also preserving their relative autonomy.

Promote Healthy Habits

Management can encourage drivers to be more healthy by providing an exercise room at the garage for use between shifts. They should also consider bringing back company cafeterias and offering healthy alternatives to the grab-and-go fast food meals that comprise the majority of driver diets. The additional expense of running a cafeteria will be offset in the long run by reducing driver absenteeism and insurance claims due to illness. Transit agencies can also offer instruction on nutrition, perhaps through annual training sessions.

Due to the unique nature of the job, it is likely we'll never be able to completely eliminate all the factors that make bus driving an unhealthy vocation. 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 at least reduce the risk factors. Spending money on implementing the above recommendations to improve driver health will be viewed as well-spent when the recommendations improve customer service and reduce absenteeism, one of the five top employment issues in transit.