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Doug Robinson: Truckers are a dying breed

Published: Monday, March 17 2014 7:51 p.m. MDT

Joe LaBonte, a long-haul trucker. Other than the long hours, high stress, lousy food, tedium, loneliness, time away from family, a shortened life span and susceptibility to serious health problems, being a trucker is a great way to make a living. Organizations are trying to help.

Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

You know how you can recognize some veteran long-haul truckers?

By the wrinkles and the skin cancers on the left side of their bodies — specifically, the left arm, hand and face. That's because they've been baked by the sun through the window during thousands of miles spent on the road.

This is to say nothing of the things going wrong inside their bodies that can’t be seen.

Long-haul truckers are a dying breed. Literally.

Their average age is reported at 55, same as the old speed limit.

It’s an aging profession. Youths aren’t interested in becoming truckers. They’re doing something else, anything. Can you blame them?

So there’s a shortage of truckers, which is a problem because the commerce needs them.

The life expectancy of a trucker has been widely reported as 61 — 16 years less than the national average.

It’s a hazardous life. Think about it. No exercise. Long hours of sitting. A steady diet of fast food and greasy truck-stop fare.

Some people are trying to do something about it. I learned about the Healthy Trucking Association of America — a 17-year-old nonprofit organization based in Alabama — when one of its executives, Jim Sherlock, contacted me. He was hoping I could help him track down Karl Malone to serve as a spokesman.

Malone, you’ll remember, liked to dabble with the big rigs when he was playing basketball for the Utah Jazz. He bought his own truck, just for fun. But truckers don’t look like Karl Malone or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. They aren’t 260 pounds of chiseled muscle. They are more like 260 pounds of goo.

This is not to make light of truckers. In a way, you can’t fault them. It’s a tough life, this trucking business.

Other than the long hours, high stress, lousy food, tedium, loneliness, time away from family, a shortened life span and susceptibility to a long list of health problems, it’s a great way to make a living.

“The lifestyle of a truck driver is endemic to terrible health,” says Sherlock. “There are 4 million drivers out there. Every day we come to work here and figure out a way to have a healthier lifestyle and raise awareness.”

They are fighting an uphill battle because the trucking job is inherently problematic given its sedentary nature and the lifestyle it engenders. According to Sherlock, truckers, who are behind the wheel an average of 57½ hours per week, are prone to many health problems.

Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity — Truckers are not salad eaters. Their diet consists of fast food and whatever they can find at truck stops (usually something with gravy). Taken in combination with no exercise, the results can’t be surprising.

Skin cancer — Trucking is a great way to work on a tan. Of course, truckers would have to move to England for an even tan. Jokes aside, all that sun exposure produces skin cancer. Even tinted windows don’t help.

Diabetes — Again, the trucking lifestyle — the food and the sedentariness — are problematic. “It’s not if they are going to get diabetes, it’s when,” says Sherlock.

Prostate cancer — The vibration of the trucks combined with sitting for long hours is a double whammy when it comes to the prostate.

Hepatitis C — This is the way Sherlock explains it: “Out of 100,000 truckers, you’re going to see 300,000 tattoos. Many of them got their tattoos in the ’80s and ’90s when there were no regulations. They used the same needle and the same ink and that makes them prone to hepatitis C later in life. It attacks the liver. It can kill them. We did a screening at a truck show and found five truckers who had it.”

The HTAA and like-minded organizations such as Rolling Strong promote solutions for the wide spectrum of problems, providing guidance on everything from health benefits to exercise tips. They urge truckers to wear sunscreen or long-sleeve shirts, gloves and hats to prevent skin cancer. They lobby truck stops to provide healthier meals: salads and grilled chicken and fish.

They urge trucking companies to provide incentives for weight-loss programs. They promote exercise. Exercise equipment has been created that truckers can use in the cab of their trucks at rest stops. At the Mid-America Trucking Show later this month in Louisville, Ky., a testing kit will be demonstrated that enables diabetic drivers to test their blood in their truck and have the results sent electronically to a doctor, employer or family member.

The bottom line of such an effort is simple: “We want to help them expand their life expectancy beyond the 60-year average that currently exists,” says Sherlock.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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