Friday, March 16, 2012

TCA’s New Leader, Robert Low, Eager to Improve Driver Health

By Rip Watson, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the March 19 print edition of Transport Topics.

Prime Inc. President Robert Low puts his commitment to improving truckers’ health on the line at lunchtime, playing full-court basketball with co-workers. “Driver health and wellness is a personal passion of mine,” he told Transport Topics this month during the Truckload Carriers Association meeting in Florida, where he was elected chairman and promised to make health and wellness a priority.

Low, 62, highlighted that commitment with a focus on longevity of drivers, whose life expectancy is at least 15 years fewer than that of the average American. “That is just not right,” he said. Drivers “just want to work and love to work,” Low said. “They are [literally] dying to work. We need to do something about that.”Other health facts are sobering.Low cited the fact that at least twice as many drivers smoke and have diabetes, compared with other workers, and only 8% exercise regularly.

While Low didn’t mention it, a study by the American Dietetic Association found that 86% of drivers are overweight or obese. That’s three times the national average for all workers (see story, p. 22). “If you care about your people, you have to follow through,” said Low, who added that he’s being realistic in thinking that it won’t be easy to get drivers to stop smoking, lose weight and exercise.

Low, who stands about 6 feet tall, continues his commitment more than four decades after filling the shooting guard position at Skyline High School in rural Urbana, Mo., about 50 miles north of Springfield, Prime’s headquarters.“I really enjoy the experience,” Low said of playing indoor five-on-five games. He added that workers sometimes dunk the ball over him. Before the court was built in 2000, lunchtime games were played in a truck yard, shooting at a basket fastened to a building and dodging trucks backing in and out.
He keeps playing because, “I really enjoy the experience,” he said.

Asked why driver wellness is a growing priority now, Low said, “We have a lot more information on the detrimental effects of sleep apnea. We understand how devastating diabetes is. It’s an epidemic — a progressive disease that is devastating if not treated.”

“These are conditions that can be corrected and cured with the right kind of health care and voluntary lifestyle changes,” he added. “We have the information; we have the knowledge; we know how to make it better.”Some pro-health steps already are being taken, both in the industry and at Prime, which ranks No. 22 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.
TCA has developed a health-screening kiosk and promoted wellness with a Weight Loss Challenge among carriers.

Prime has two full-time trainers at its fitness center to help with exercise, nutrition programs and smoking-cessation programs.The company also has a fitness center and trainer in its Pittston, Pa., terminal. Low particularly praised driver Siphiwe Baleka, an owner-operator for Prime, who has competed in triathlons and has produced a set of exercise and nutrition tapes for other drivers to use while they are working.

The tapes include push-ups, pull-ups, abdominal crunches, the use of resistance weight bands and even yoga, Low said. There also are potential business benefits to improving driver wellness, as the driver population ages and a shortage becomes more acute.“We have to do this,” Low said. “You have to scratch your head and say, ‘What are we going to do going forward?’ to find drivers.” Low also pledged to step up the industry’s image-building campaign with a driver focus that was started by his predecessor as TCA chairman, Fikes Truck Line CEO Gary Salisbury.

“The image is very important for our industry’s drivers and their families,” Low said. Drivers “deserve to be respected like any other member of society, and in many cases that isn’t done.” Part of the image effort will be to continue programs such as Highway Angel, which recognizes drivers who help people in distress, and Wreaths Across America, which places wreaths on the graves of fallen veterans.

There’s more to be done on a broader basis with trucking’s image campaign, Low said, citing the success of the rail industry’s efforts. The railroads, with more than $70 billion in annual revenue concentrated at six large carriers, have spent as much as $50 million on their image campaign, he claimed, although an Association of American Railroads spokeswoman said later that AAR’s image spending was much lower.
The rails’ image campaign promotes their private capital investment and environmental benefits, using tweeting birds in the background of radio advertisements.

That campaign has been advancing at a time when some rail shippers are pressing legislators in Washington to boost rail competition, so far without success. Low said he’s looking for ways to increase commitment to upgrading trucking’s image from the diverse truckload industry, with tens of thousands of carriers. He’s backing that effort with a $5,000 personal funding pledge.

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