Back pain is the bane of many whose jobs involve a lot of sitting at a desk or other work station. But that misery is compounded when the sitting is behind the wheel of a truck. Truckers don’t just sit. They don’t ride a desk. They drive. They can’t take even a quick break whenever they need to stretch their legs.
Then there’s the heavy lifting. Securing loads and handling freight can take a toll on the upper body. It should be no surprise that truck driving is often at or near the top of OSHA’s list of professions incurring lost work due to injury. Yet truckers must be as pain-free and comfortable as possible to work as efficiently and, above all, as safely as possible as they pilot massive, powerful pieces of machinery on public roads for hours at a time.
Elsewhere, back pain may be written off as what the weekend warrior who overdid the yardwork brought on himself. But in trucking, it’s an occupational hazard. That’s why fleets should help drivers avoid bringing it on in the first place.
To be sure, truck drivers are exposed to risk factors that can lead to musculoskeletal disorders, such as neck, shoulder and back pain, with the latter being the most common ailment. That’s according to a University of Washington ergonomics guide for truckers put out by the State of Washington’s Safety Health Investment Project.
The guide points to these risk factors, all well known to truckers, as causes of back pain: poor sitting; long periods seated in the same posture; whole body vibration; and repeated lifting of heavy (over 50 pounds) loads or lifting objects to or from the floor.
Just “the physical effort needed to sustain a posture over a work day can lead to muscle fatigue as well as contribute to neck and back pain,” advises the guide, which explains how fitting a truck seat to the trucker’s body will improve posture and help reduce pain, discomfort and fatigue:
- Place feet flat on the floor and adjust seat height until knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. Knees should not be higher than hips.
- Filling the lumbar support so it meets the back should provide “a firm yet comfortable level of support… Good lumbar support will minimize slouching (forward head positioning) and will dampen the exposure to vibration.” However, be aware that overfilling lumbar bladders can cause rounding of the spine.
- Slightly reclining the seat back is recommended. Adjust seat distance fore and aft to make sure each pedal can be depressed without raising or rotating out of the seat.
- Seat-pad depth is correct if at least two fingers can be placed between the back of the knees and front of the seat pad by lifting it and moving it in or out.
- Seat pan can be tilted by tall drivers so the front of the seat meets the knees. When driving conditions require high clutch use, drivers may consider lowering the front of the seat pan.
- Release the fore‐aft lock so the seat can float and absorb some of the cab movement in city driving or if trailer is pushing and tugs cab.
- Steering wheel should be adjusted to meet the driver with hands at 9 and 3 o’clock positions. Elbows should be close to driver’s sides and he or she should avoid having to reach to meet steering wheel.
- Mirrors should be adjusted so complete area of each mirror can be seen without slouching or twisting. And mirrors can serve as “a cue to sit up when you slouch instead of readjusting them.”
To help prevent injuries, the guide also recommends that drivers not go directly from prolonged sitting to lifting and carrying tasks. “Give your back a few minutes to adjust by completing other tasks such as paperwork or talking with the client. Alternatively walk around and do mild stretching. Never twist your back when entering and exiting your truck.”
Of course, any driver with continuing back pain should seek medical advice and treatment if necessary. Fleets may consider it in their own best interest to aid in this process to heighten safety, decrease health insurance costs, reduce workers’ compensation claims and drive up driver satisfaction.
Dawid Szpojda, president of Schpoyda Trucking, Pomona, Calif., says he’s convinced that maintaining good posture on cross-country hauls goes a long way toward preventing and alleviating back pain. He says that’s why he and his drivers are now outfitted with a specialized upper-body posture garments supplied by Alignmed, Santa Ana, Calif.
“As the owner, I am happy to see my drivers practicing their postural fitness during their work day,” Szpojda says. “We see that it improves their mental and physical well-being and helps to reduce fatigue.”
Alignmed offers a line of posture garments, ranging from its original Posture Shirt 2.0 (which resembles a sleek high-tech athletic shirt) to the SpinalQ version, which is considered a medical device covered by most insurance plans, according to Bill Schultz, the company’s president and founder.
Wearing a posture shirt “will help alleviate muscular pain from being sedentary and that can reduce fatigue,” says Schultz. He explains that the key distinguisher of the Alignmed design is the “NeuroBands that start in the front of the shoulders and pull back over the shoulders, down the postural muscles and convene at the spine.
Schultz says Alignmed does not sell “a compression product, as you want to allow for expansion for sitting down and not press on the belly. What we’re using are variable-stretch bands in a garment that is 6 inches longer than a regular T-shirt. The NeuroBands work to activate muscles, even while sitting and driving.
“Our garments fit snugly; they pull the shoulders back to correct posture, fire nerves and muscles, and stimulate blood flow while opening up oxygen intake,” he continues. “This helps reduce inflammation while being sedentary. And for truckers who must also perform strenuous duties, such as unloading, lifting and bending, the Alignmed Posture Shirt balances the body to enable it to perform these tasks with a reduced threat of injury.”
CORRECTED: Bill Schultz's name was incorrectly spelled in the original version of this article. We apologize for the error.