When Brian Milson was struck by a forklift at a Seven Hills depot it meant the end of the road for his truck driving career. The long-haul truckie was hit from behind while preparing to unhitch his semi-trailer on a miserable wet night in 2007.
Sustaining a torn shoulder tendon and other injuries, he returned to work on light duties within six weeks only to become jobless when his employer went bust.
Unemployed for six months and applying for up to 30 jobs a week, his prospects looked bleak and he suffered from depression and anxiety.
Now in sales – with workers’ comp top-up pay ensuring he earns a truck driver wage – he’s turned a corner but wishes he was still behind the wheel.
“All I ever wanted to do was return to my pre-injury duties, but when you’re told you can’t, it can be extremely tough to deal with,” he said.
Unfortunately, Mr Milson’s experience is by no means an isolated incident in the road freight transport industry.
Several workers are killed and hundreds injured each year after being hit by mobile plant, such as forklifts and other vehicles, while loading and unloading their trucks. More than half the people killed in forklift incidents during the past 10 years were pedestrians.
Casualties are all too common in NSW’s second highest risk industry – 5512 injuries and 29 fatalities between 2007 and 2010, with $157 million in workers’ comp costs in the past three years.
Preventing workers being killed or injured by mobile plant is just one goal of an ambitious campaign to turn this grim safety track record around. No easy task as the industry pivots on complex contractual arrangements. Responsibility for work health and safety (WHS) is often shared by several employers who are often not aware of the part they should play in keeping workers safe.
The campaign identifies better communication as the key to safer on-site traffic management, as well as safety zones and warning devices.
Other campaign issues are disproportionate injury rates stemming from handling and restraining loads – over 40 per cent of all injuries – and a high number of falls from trucks or loads. Also in the spotlight is the industry’s dire return to work and injury management record; the worst in NSW.
Getting workers onboard, however, will not be easy, according to campaign supporter Jodie Broadbent, ATA NSW state representative for road freight transport operators.
“We’re dealing with an ageing ‘old school’ workforce,” she said.
“The attitude is: ‘I’ve always done it this way, who are you to tell me how to pick up a box?’
“Most truck drivers are overweight or obese, so trying to get a driver, or most of our industry’s workers for that matter, to bend their knees is really difficult.”
Research reveals road freight transport workers take longer to recover from illness and drivers run a high risk of mental health issues and occupational disease. The main contributing factors, along with stress and fatigue, are smoking and alcohol use.
The statistics are staggering – long working hours, generally more than 49 hours a week, with almost 80 per cent of workers not exercising enough and over 70 per cent either overweight or obese. Not only is poor diet common but a third of all workers are smokers and consume an unhealthy amount of alcohol.
“Health and fitness is a hard one to manage as you have to influence people’s choices and understanding of what fitness is,” she said.
“For example, many people believe a proper fitness workout requires an hour in a gym.
But actually there are some fantastic workout options that drivers can complete without even getting out of their truck.
“Some of these guys could be ticking time bombs and that’s clearly not sustainable behavior, but they don’t see it as an immediate problem until something goes wrong.”
She said the average driver considered hot, ready-to-go fast food as the quickest option when in fact it took minimal time to prepare a healthy snack or meal.
“It only takes two seconds to grab a few potato cakes, but if the driver is taking a longer rest break, why not wait a couple of minutes for something healthier?” she said.
“The problem is that it’s hard to change someone’s habits when they’ve been doing it this way for so long.”