The industry’s dark side
Long-haul truck drivers are known to enjoy the freedom of the highway, but behind the scenes the industry is breeding a culture of danger and discontent. Tony Sheldon writes
“I DON’T care what you say to me, I’m killing myself as soon as you leave.”
These were the words spoken to former truck driver Leon Ruri when he went to help a man threatening to commit suicide. The threat was real: the man had rope in his car and was adamant it was the only way to solve his problems, which included being injured and out of work for some time.
Leon knows all about mental illness and also suffered severe bouts when his marriage broke down and financial pressure piled on.
“There’s only one thing that spins faster than the axles on a truck and that’s your mind,” Leon says of the long hours he spent on the road while dealing with his mental illness.
Transport driver Charlie Nichols also experienced mental illness when his marriage broke down and says seeking help is vital.
“I’m proud to say I’ve got a lot of satisfaction back in my life. But had I done something sooner, I would have kept my relationship with my wife,” Charlie says.
Charlie and Leon recently spoke out about mental illness among transport workers. Both men are part of a campaign by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) to work with beyondblue to reach out to people who need help.
A survey of more than 4,000 truck drivers showed over 22 per cent said they had experienced mental illness at some point.
We know from previous surveys that truck drivers have a 7 per cent higher chance than the rest of the population of developing mental illness.
Suicide rates are also high among truck drivers. A study by Deakin University showed 323 truck drivers committed suicide between 2001 and 2010.
An analysis by the Victorian coroner’s court shows truck drivers had the highest number of suicides out of any other profession, with 53 drivers taking their own lives between 2008 and 2014.
When you look at the state of the trucking industry, it’s not hard to figure out the particular factors that put truck drivers at higher risk of mental illness.
Drivers say pressure at work impacts on their entire lives, often creating mental health problems.
When a bullying culture exists in the yard where drivers are forced to meet unrealistic deadlines, there is pressure to take risks at work, such as driving long hours, skipping rest breaks, forgoing strapping down loads properly to save time. This, in turn, causes chronic fatigue and means drivers are away from family for long periods. When at home, they are tired and irritable.
Often going hand in hand with this difficult work situation are low rates, non-payment of allowances or superannuation, and underpayment or wage theft from their paychecks.
Raising these issues at work can mean even more pressure for drivers – their hours might be cut, which means even less money coming in.
One driver recently spoke about the reduced hours and humiliating tasks he would be given after challenging his boss, who was pressuring him to drive long hours. “You’d find yourself on seven-hour days washing trucks in the yard,” he says.
Coupled with these factors are the high rates of deaths and injuries in trucking. The number of transport workers killed at work spiked in the last year.
Usually an already unacceptable rate of one-in-four workers killed is a transport worker. But in the last year that figure has jumped to almost 40 per cent.
It takes a special type of superhuman individual to not be affected by these factors.
If you are already experiencing personal problems in your marriage or dealing with illness or financial problems in your family, this work situation can make things all the worse.
This is why we need employers on board to address mental health by tackling the problems right across the transport industry.
We know transport operators themselves are on tight margins, and pressuring drivers to work harder on less money may seem the only way to keep afloat. But this is just not a sustainable option.
HOLDING TO ACCOUNT
The top of the supply chain is not being held to account for this pressure on transport.
Wealthy retailers and manufacturers are getting off scotfree for imposing low- cost contracts while transport operators and drivers are left to subsist on poor rates that are causing problems well beyond missing payment deadlines.
It is affecting their lives and their mental health. Ultimately, it also affects the lives of ordinary road users in truck crashes.
We need a system that can examine the entire transport supply chain and ensure wealthy clients are held to account for what is happening in trucking.
We need employer associations on board to stop attacking drivers’ pay and wages and to openly tackle employers that pile pressure on drivers to take risks and steal from their pay and super.
Recently, NatRoad CEO Warren Clarke defended his organisation’s moves to reduce pay and allowances for drivers in a review of the transport awards.
He rejected much-needed improvements to drivers’ pay and conditions, saying he opposed new measures that “fail to bring about any productivity gains”.
This short-sighted view fails to recognise the importance of investing in well-trained, experienced drivers whose first priority is safety. Without that, no transport operator can have a long-term future.
The TWU campaign to tackle mental health is underway and hand in hand with it is our campaign to fight for a better industry overall. Join our fight today at www.saferates.org
“TRUCK DRIVERS HAD THE HIGHEST NUMBER OF SUICIDES OUT OF ANY OTHER PROFESSION”
WITH TWU NATIONAL SECRETARY TONY SHELDON