For many people, falling asleep at work can certainly come with consequences – being reprimanded by your boss or even losing your job. But for others such as lorry drivers, the outcome can be deadly.
In the run-up to International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD), Unite is shining a spotlight on the dangers faced by lorry drivers who are being driven to exhaustion – and in some cases death — by ever-increasing employer demands.
A freedom of information request by Unite has found that in the last five years, 109 drivers or passengers of HGVs have been killed in road traffic accidents – an average of 22 each year.
But because road traffic accidents do not count as workplace deaths, their underlying causes aren’t being properly investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which can simply wash their hands of these fatalities.
Talk to any lorry driver though, and they’ll tell you of the many close calls they’ve had with dangerous levels of fatigue on the road.
Unite member Adrian Sawyer has been in the business of driving lorries for nearly 20 years, and he tells UNITElive the pressures on the job have never been greater.
“There’s been a much greater emphasis on on-time deliveries, and that’s the main problem,” he explains. “We’re being asked to do more in less time on roads that have become more and more congested, but the distance you have to cover doesn’t change, nor do the speed limits, so something’s got to give.”
And for Adrian and his fellow drivers that something is proper rest breaks. The lack of proper truck stops only exacerbates the problem.
“I once was driving to Liverpool and I had to go to the toilet really badly – it took me an hour to find a facility on the road,” he explains. “You can imagine what that does to your ability to stay alert on the road when you’re also battling fatigue.”
Adrian doesn’t sleep in his lorry as many drivers do, but his schedule is nonetheless gruelling – he often does shifts from 6am until 9pm.
“Because of the distance from my home to where I start my job, I have to be up at 4.30am. By the time I get home, I only have time to eat, shower, say hello to my wife and before you know it it’s 10.30pm or later and it’s time for bed. I’m shattered most of the time.”
‘Hypnotised’ by the road
Adrian says he often finds himself rolling down the window and slapping his legs to force himself to stay awake on the road.
“Anyone in this job who tells you they don’t get tired is lying,” he notes. “The only thing I won’t do is drink energy drinks which many lorry drivers do.”
Unite member Kevin Terry also says he often must force himself to stay awake.
“The worst is when you’re staring at the road for so long – you literally start becoming hypnotised by the road and you have to snap yourself out of it.”
Adrian recalls the experience of one colleague who, after taking time off over Christmas, returned after the festive period to a shift that began at 2am.
“After the time off with his family, he wasn’t used to the hours and fell asleep — the lorry crossed from one lane into another into oncoming traffic. He’s lucky no one got hurt and that he’s still alive. There needs to be better regulation on shifts and when they start.”
Indeed, the rules are notoriously lax — legally drivers can work a 15 hour day, including 10 hours of driving and have just nine hours of rest, before starting work again. This can occur for two consecutive days.
“Employers will work you to the bone and they don’t care how tired you are – they’ll just say they’re working within the law and that’s that.
“I always say that before full automation takes over our jobs entirely, bosses in the meantime will treat us like machines.”
Kevin agrees that the laws must change.
“The regulations on working time have been watered down to where it’s too easy to reduce your breaks – which contributes to that fatigue that can be so dangerous.”
Lorry driver survey
A recent survey of 4,000 HGV drivers reflected Adrian’s and Kevin’s experiences – one in three reported having fallen asleep at the wheel, and in the majority of these cases, 64 per cent, they blamed it on disturbed sleep, while 62 per cent attributed falling asleep while driving to working a series of long days.
A majority of lorry drivers – more than 60 per cent – report being most tired after they’ve slept in their vehicles at the side of the road, in a layby or in a service station car park.
In addition to challenging employers on working conditions, Unite is also campaigning to change the laws on working hours. The union is moreover pushing for an increase in the number of decent truck stop facilities in the UK, where there is now a chronic shortage, which forces drivers to park and rest in unsuitable locations.
The shortage has happened against a backdrop of swingeing cuts to local authorities, which now have responsibility for building and maintaining truck stops. Because the facilities aren’t hugely profitable, they don’t get built or maintained properly and the problem is then simply swept under the carpet.
Unite national officer Adrian Jones, who met with junior transport minister Jesse Norman MP over the matter this week, urged the government to “take the lead.”
He called for the government “to require all local authorities to provide truck stops to meet local requirements. The authorities can’t be allowed to continue to pretend it is someone else’s problem.”
Jones highlighted the HGV driver survey results, saying that “it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if drivers are regularly sleeping in their cabs tiredness will become a major hazard. Yet virtually nothing is being done to tackle this problem.”
He slammed the “obsession” with the on-time delivery model now employed by so many firms.
“This can inevitably lead to tragic consequences — driver welfare should be a company’s first priority not just an afterthought,” Jones noted.
‘Massaging the figures’
Especially on the eve of International Workers’ Memorial Day, when people across the people across the globe honour those killed at work, the way lorry driver deaths are recorded must change.
“It is entirely wrong that if a driver is tragically killed at work it is not recorded as a workplace death,” he said. “At best it is a massaging of the fatality figures.
“In reality it is a complete derogation of responsibility, as by not allowing the HSE to investigate these tragic accidents the long-term causes are not being properly investigated and the necessary safety improvements are not being made.”
“When we talk about the number of people killed at work each year on Workers’ Memorial Day, we must remember that as they stand now these figures are wrong – so many lorry drivers killed at work are simply dismissed as roadside accidents.
“In Working Time Regulations, our lorries are considered our workplace, but when it comes to deaths and injuries, suddenly our vehicles aren’t classed as our place of work – this is inherently unjust and it must change.”
Unite welcomes all to join our International Workers’ Memorial Day events tomorrow (April 28) held through the UK – find a local one near you here.