Tires. Brakes. Mirrors. Companies trying to improve safety often look at how their equipment is performing. But Sergio Rojas believes that the most important safety measure is the driver sitting behind the wheel of the vehicle. And it's likely they could be stressed out, tired, unhealthy, or not operating at peak performance.
Rojas is the Director of Wellness at Hirschbach Motor Lines. After ten years developing corporate wellness programs, Rojas shifted into the trucking industry two years ago at Hirschbach. Rojas was intrigued by the trucking industry’s unique challenges: an older workforce that spends their entire day on the road, often surrounded by unhealthy food with minimal opportunities for exercise. As a result of the lifestyle, more than half of drivers are obese, and many battle diabetes, sleep apnea, and other complications.
A lifestyle problem
Many of the issues plaguing drivers are interconnected. For example, obesity can cause sleep apnea. Since cognitive function declines by about 10 percent for every hour of missed sleep, drowsy drivers experience slower reaction times that can negate even the most high-tech safety measures.
But simply telling drivers to get more sleep doesn’t solve the problem, nor is the program just about weight loss. Rather, Rojas looks at sleep and body weight as parts of a lifestyle.
Rojas teamed with Dr. Patricia Novick to create a comprehensive wellness program that promotes lifestyle changes based on mindfulness and vitality self-care skills.
“Drivers are taught and coached on skills in various areas of life that all impact immune health and disease prevention. They are also taught to be mindful and pay attention to what they notice as they practice these skills. Since drivers are all different, the program is then tailored for each participating Hirschbach driver. Over the course of a year, coaches work with drivers regularly to help them make incremental changes that can be adopted for the long haul,” says Rojas.
Rojas has a team of four coaches and has worked with over 350 Hirschbach drivers.
Each driver entering the program takes a health assessment that assigns a risk level. 87 percent of the program graduates have improved their health at least one level, and 33 percent have advanced two levels or more. As a result, drivers have quit smoking, lost weight, and some no longer needed their diabetes, cholesterol or blood pressure medication.
“I have lost 40 pounds and expect to keep losing,” one participant described. “I’m exercising and staying hydrated. I couldn’t be more appreciative of what this program has done for me.”
Changes that stick
Coaching begins with twenty minutes a week and scales back as the year progresses. Some of the activity is hands-on, including grocery store tours where a coach walks the aisles with drivers to practice interpreting labels. Drivers learn to prepare healthier food options — even in their trucks — and how to choose foods that will satisfy hunger without causing an energy crash.
“We teach [drivers] to be mindful and notice if they feel better. We don’t teach vegan or vegetarian; we just say cut down on meat and dairy. We have drivers [who] like it so much they won’t eat a piece of meat for three weeks. They notice a difference in how much better they feel, and how much clearer they think.”
- Sergio Rojas, Hirschbach
As Rojas describes, it’s not a one-size-fits-all template.
About half of all new Hirschbach drivers enter the program as part of their orientation. The rest of the participants come from existing ranks, including those with sleep apnea or incidents of drowsy driving. The program also targets drivers whose health issues prevent them from getting a 2-year CDL renewal. Word of mouth among participants continues to refer more drivers, and Rojas wants to expand the program to coach up to 40 percent of the entire fleet.
Four challenges, intertwined solutions
Rojas outlines some of the key challenges that drivers face:
Getting adequate sleep on the road is tough — especially if you suffer from sleep apnea. The program encourages drivers to drink more water and rely less on caffeine, and has provided CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines to drivers who need them. The program also focuses on exercise as a tool for getting better sleep.
Drivers face several stresses, from road rage and long detentions to strain on family relationships. Just like lack of sleep, too much stress can affect reaction times and prompt drivers to overreact to minor triggers (like road rage incidents) or react too slowly to avoid an accident.
Rojas coaches drivers on stress management techniques like mindful breathing. Rojas also teaches communication skills to improve relationships with family members, such as how to have more satisfying calls with home while on the road.
On average, about 54 percent of drivers are smokers (compared to 21 percent of the general population). Through mindfulness and other coaching, more than 20 of the 145 participants in the program at Hirschbach that smoke have quit entirely, and another 35 have cut down to fewer than five cigarettes a day.
By definition, drivers sit every moment they’re behind the wheel. Program participants learn simple stretches and calisthenics, and use an app loaded with exercise videos. The program encourages drivers to start small, with just 20 to 30 squats a day, spread throughout the day, along with finding multiple opportunities to stretch and walk more, and notice how it makes them feel: more alert, better rested, and less stressed.
Making the industry healthier
Rojas has been recognized as an Innovator by Heavy Duty Trucking, and he’s worked with several renowned health advocates including Dr. Oz.
“This is by far the most fulfilling work I’ve ever done because these are real people who want help and need help and are appreciative about it,” he says.
He’s not done, though: his vision is to get all program participants out of the very high risk and high risk health categories — and to help the trucking industry see how improving driver health can be an effective safety measure.