'Ill health making driver shortages even worse'

Rising ill health a major factor in lorry and bus driver shortages

Reading time: 6 min

A nationwide lorry driver shortage continues unabated, with news stories every day highlighting the consequences of an estimated 100,000 HGV driver shortfall.

From increasing reports of gaps on supermarket shelves, to fast food chain outlets such as McDonald’s and Nando’s running out of their most popular items, and even council bin collections being delayed, the shortage has hit crisis point.

Unite has pinpointed a number of factors behind the current shortage – an ageing workforce; the backlog in tests for new entrants due to Covid restrictions; and EU drivers who returned home during the pandemic, but are now deterred from returning to the UK due to Brexit bureaucracy.

Now, Unite has highlighted yet another factor fueling the shortage – ill health and illness that is widespread among the workforce, often caused by the poor working conditions of the job itself.

A Unite freedom of information (FOI) request to the Driving and Vehicle Licensing Association (DVLA) has revealed that over the last decade the number of lorry and bus drivers who have had their licences revoked on medical grounds has more than doubled.

In 2005 a total of 4,583 drivers had their licence refused or revoked on medical grounds. By 2018 this number had skyrocketed to 12,242.

In 2020, the number stood at just over 7,000 but the slight decrease since 2018 likely reflects a special suspension of the requirement for lorry drivers to undergo medical assessments during the pandemic between March 2020 and January 2021. During this period, drivers only had to self-certify that they were in good health to secure a license extension.

While some drivers are able to have their licences returned if the health problem is short-term, in many cases, a serious underlying health condition means a licence cannot be returned. Unite believes this has had a cumulative impact, with thousands of drivers forced out of the industry because of ill health which has only exacerbated the driver shortage.

Unite also argues that growing numbers of drivers who have had their licences revoked or refused on health grounds is being driven by an ageing workforce – research by UK Logistics shows that in 2020 the average age of HGV drivers was 49.6 years, while in 2018 the average age was nearly two years younger at 47.9 years.

UniteLive spoke to supermarket lorry driver and Unite rep Alan, 66, who explained how the job can impact drivers’ health.

“We’re one of the only supermarket chains where the drivers have to unload the cages [of stock] themselves and they can be very heavy,” he said. “I’m waiting on wrist surgery now because of the damage the work has done to me over the years.”

While Alan’s wrist injury is linked to his specific role which requires unloading his vehicle – something that most lorry drivers aren’t required to do – he says the job overall can be detrimental to workers’ health.

“A lot of the health problems stem from stress and fatigue,” he explained. “Access to decent, quality food on the road is a major issue. Most lorry drivers end up on diets of highly processed foods that are easy to eat on the road but are terrible for your health.”

Alan believes one of the biggest health problems for many HGV drivers is high blood pressure, which in itself is often a consequence of poor diet and a sedentary work environment.

“We also have high rates of smoking in the industry, which is essentially a coping mechanism for dealing with stress and again leads to blood pressure issues,” he added. “With an ageing workforce, deteriorating eyesight is yet another major health issue in the industry that’s causing drivers to lose their licences.”

Alan’s comments reflect previous research by Unite – a 2019 survey of Unite lorry drivers found nearly 75 per cent had reported that the long-hours culture in the industry had affected their physical health.

Commenting on Unite’s latest research showing growing numbers of lorry drivers having their licences revoked or refused on health grounds, Unite national officer Adrian Jones said, “These figures are alarming but unsurprising.

“What they demonstrate is that drivers are being forced out of the industry due to ill health and this is making the driver shortages even worse,” he added. “This is a problem of the employers making – forcing their workforces to work long hours in unhealthy environments is going to have major health implications. These problems are only going to get worse as the average age of the driving workforce increases.

“It is essential that not only is pay improved but that conditions for drivers are made more palatable, so that they can access more nutritious food and that the long hours culture, which also leads to a chronic lack of sleep, is tackled,” Jones continued.

“What is certain is that the relaxation in the driving hours that is resulting in already exhausted workers operating for longer is making a bad situation worse and will have long-term health implications.”

Unite is calling on the government and employers to come together to tackle the lorry driver shortage by reforming the industry to increase pay and improve working conditions – you can find out more by reading Unite’s Drivers Manifesto here.

By Hajera Blagg

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