Look after drivers, and they will look after you

The wellbeing of staff – and particularly drivers – is of paramount importance to operators, says a leading transport solicitor, and that places upon them a number of legal responsibilities. Get it wrong and there may be trouble, as the Glasgow bin lorry tragedy demonstrated. Tim Deakin reports

Investigate anything that causes you doubt about a driver’s wellbeing

You may know your drivers, but do you really know them? If the answer to that question is no, then think hard about getting closer. Make a constant assessment of their mental and physical state, and satisfy yourself that they are fit and suitable to drive, because your business’ corporate reputation rests firmly on their shoulders.

That’s the message from Jonathon Backhouse of specialist transport law firm Backhouse Jones. routeONE readers have already heard from Mr Backhouse over recent weeks, but last Thursday (22 September) he and some of his colleagues spoke at a free-to-attend compliance seminar in Rainham.

Driver wellbeing was one of the topics covered. In a nutshell, managing risk from a driver health perspective has never been more important, he says, and it will remain thus in the future as drivers’ contributions come under ever increasing scrutiny when serious accidents occur.

“It is for the operator to satisfy itself that the driver is fit for work. If you see something that causes any doubt, then you should investigate before something goes wrong,” he says.

Mercifully, crashes involving PCVs are rare, which gives an indication of how seriously the industry takes its responsibilities. But the ultimate nightmare for any operator is one of its wrecked vehicles starring in the local newspaper or the on evening news. The reputational damage is enormous, and potentially business-ending.

That makes it imperative that managers maintain an awareness of changes in drivers’ behaviour, which Mr Backhouse points out can be a reliable indication of health or mental problems.

Operators should also remember the importance of not overworking staff, and of having reliable monitoring systems in place. Failure on any of these points can lead to serious questions being asked, not just of the driver but of the operator as well, should the worst happen.

“If something goes wrong, it is most likely that the cause will be a driver having failed in their job,” says Mr Backhouse. “And when things go wrong with a heavy vehicle, they often go very wrong, and can potentially lead to fatalities.”

Keep an eye out for problems

Satisfying itself that its drivers are fit for work is the operator’s most basic obligation, but that does not simply mean checking that their licence is current and that they may have recently passed a medical, if applicable.

A clean and valid licence is just a starting point, says Mr Backhouse. “Should anything give rise to concern, the operator needs to think carefully and investigate.”

Your corporate reputation rests firmly on drivers’ shoulders – so protect it

Ensuring fitness for work begins even before the driver has been recruited, and it should form part of the selection process, he adds.

“Do not allow employment to commence without first checking references. It is easy to gloss over that point with a driver shortage in place, but operators cannot afford to.

“They must not simply take an applicant’s word for why they are not working for their previous employer.”

He points out that previous employers are obliged to provide references, and adds that some may divulge much more than the legally-mandated minimum if asked. In those cases, a call can give a much better idea of whether the driver is suitable to work for you or not.

Pulling the trigger

Trigger points for a closer examination of existing employees’ state of mind can include changes in behaviour. Regularly reporting late for work, or obvious changes in attitude or temperament, are among several that may indicate that an issue is present.

In these cases, it should be investigated as soon as possible, by a medical professional if necessary, says Mr Backhouse.

Maintaining a relationship with a doctor is worthwhile, he adds. Doing so may be cheaper than you think, and it can pay dividends in the long run.

Mr Backhouse advises that operators should also consider giving their company medical professional access to employees’ medical records. Such access can only be granted with the employee’s permission, and records must be kept completely confidential, but records are often useful when forming an opinion of a driver’s suitability.

“Giving them access to medical records will give your occupational health professional a much better insight into what they need to know, and into whether the driver will be a liability to your business.

“In the case of an accident, these procedures will be looked at by the authorities, and the more that it has done, the lesser the chance of serious trouble for the operator.”

Standing firm

Convincing drivers to see their doctor, allowing issues to be placed on their medical record in the first place, is the tricky part of the health monitoring process, Mr Backhouse continues.

Systems should be in place to check suitability before employment begins

Men, in particular, are not fond of visiting a doctor, and this can lead to serious illnesses remaining undiagnosed. “I once heard of a major heart problem being regarded as heartburn and treated with Gaviscon,” he says.

“Men often avoid a doctor like the plague, but as drivers, they do not have that luxury. You cannot stress to drivers enough that it is important for them to go to the doctor and deal with problems.

“Remind them of the Glasgow bin lorry incident if necessary; they can kill people if they become ill behind the wheel. That driver had a problem, didn’t tell Glasgow City Council (GCC) about it and also appears to have misled three doctors.”

Six people were killed and 15 injured after the driver of the bin lorry passed out at the wheel in that accident, and GCC’s reputation took a massive blow.

The sinister side

Natural illness is often easy to detect, but operators should also keep a close eye on drivers who they think may be doing self-inflicted harm. That can cause them to be incapable of driving safely, and the media bombshell of a driver unfit through drink or drugs can be hugely damaging.

“We all like to think that we know what a drug user looks like, but there are lots of people who smoke marijuana or use cocaine who do not live up to the stereotype, and think that drug use is perfectly all right,” says Mr Backhouse.

“It is very important to have facilities in place to test drivers for drug abuse, and employment law does not forbid you from doing so.” The bottom line is simple: “If you have a driver who you think is taking drugs, test them. If they refuse, do not permit them to drive your vehicles.”

Tiredness is also something to monitor, and sleep apnoea – where an individual’s sleep is interrupted by constricted airflow – is an important concern. It can cause drivers to fall asleep at the wheel. Those who are of a larger stature are more at risk, as the risk of sleep apnoea is related to neck size. It is treatable, however.

Overworking drivers can also lead to problems, and it can be trouble even if they remain well within the maximum legal working hours.

“If you know your drivers, you will see a change when they are becoming stressed or over-tired. Do not dismiss it. Investigate, although it is not always necessary to do so formally. In these cases, instinct is a good indicator, and you should use it,” says Mr Backhouse.

“Showing concern for drivers’ wellbeing can benefit your relationship with them,” he adds, although initially they may be reluctant to open up. But it’s important that when you or one of your team has a concern, you raise it with the driver concerned.

Drivers’ fitness for work is a tricky issue to deal with, but if the employee concerned is not receptive to any concerns you may have, you should escalate the matter.

Mr Backhouse and his colleagues are experts at representing operators at Public Inquiry; don’t let your business become his next customer by neglecting your responsibilities to drivers’ health and wellbeing, for it is a topic of interest to the Traffic Commissioners.

routeONE comment

What Jonathon Backhouse says may sound like scaremongering, but there are two examples that illustrate his point how employers’ attitudes to employee behaviour have already come to the fore at times of disaster.

One was the Glasgow bin lorry accident, where driver Harry Clarke may have misled doctors and his employers to retain his driving licence. In the other, Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed his aircraft despite having previously shown signs of mental strife.

These are extreme instances, but keeping a weather eye on the wellbeing of your drivers is neither a costly nor an overly time-consuming exercise.

It’s something that can easily be ignored when driver recruitment is tough, but as Mr Backhouse points out, enforcement authorities become very interested indeed when an incident has occurred and the driver’s performance is called into question. Can you afford not to keep an eye on things?