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Steering Toward Safety: Inside the causes driving vehicle-related injuries

By Chuck Ross | Nov 15, 2023
Getty Images / seamartini

It might be time to look at the ways some simple changes in how you drive and access your vehicles could reduce the risk of accidents or serious injuries—or maybe just help protect against end-of-the-day aches and pains.

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Electrical contractors are trained on how to stay safe from hazards such as short circuits and arc flashes, but they might not factor in how other aspects of their job can affect their overall health. 

Consider how much time contractors spend in their vehicles, driving and accessing the tools and supplies they need for projects. Though that might total a significant portion of a work week, many electricians give little thought to their truck, van or car beyond oil changes and tire pressure checks. 

If this sounds like your approach, it might be time to look at the ways some simple changes in how you drive and access your vehicles could reduce the risk of accidents or serious injuries—or maybe just help protect against end-of-the-day aches and pains.

Reducing crash risks

The most obvious place to start when talking about vehicle--related injuries is with crashes, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found to be the first or second leading cause of death in every major industry group in 2022. The BLS also found that 41% of 2020’s pedestrian worker fatalities were concentrated in the occupations of motor vehicle operators and construction trade workers.

Vehicle crashes, whether fatal or not, are expensive for employers. A 2019 report from the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety using BLS data found that on-the-job highway crashes cost employers an average of $26,081 per crash and $78,418 per injury—and fatality expenses can top $750,000. These figures include healthcare fringe benefit expenses (such as health insurance, workers’ compensation, sick leave and disability insurance) and nonfringe costs (such as motor vehicle property damage, liability insurance and crash-related legal expenses). 

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a research agency funded by investor-owned utilities, recently conducted a review of traffic safety practices across industries as part of a public report, “Approaches to Reducing Motor Vehicle Crashes and Improving Driver Safety in Nonelectric Utility Fleets.” 

A key theme researchers highlighted was that employee traffic safety starts with managers and best practices that include developing a companywide traffic safety program for drivers, establishing a safety climate or culture within the company, setting policies to promote safe driving and evaluating the effects of these programs on traffic safety outcomes.

EPRI’s researchers also found value in driver monitoring, a move that could prove controversial with some employees. They note that the organization Together for Safer Roads has identified three types of such programs recommended for use together:

Public feedback from other drivers using “How’s my driving?” messages on the back of vehicles, with a phone number other drivers can use to report what they see. Some insurance-sponsored reports claim these efforts can reduce crashes by up to 22%.

Management ride-alongs, with supervisors or other managers periodically riding with employees to observe driving behavior and adherence to company policies. Managers should provide positive and negative feedback at the end of the ride.

In-vehicle driver monitoring using onboard automated systems with accelerometers and GPS data recording. Some systems also have synced video feeds. The EPRI report notes that several studies have found these systems can decrease incidence of safety-related events by more than half.

Applying ergonomics

While a vehicle crash can result in sudden injury, getting in and out of the driver’s seat, turning awkwardly to complete paperwork or study line drawings and stretching and reaching to grab tools from the back can all lead to chronic pain, or even temporary or permanent disability. While some of the tactics taken to avoid collision--related injuries—such as always wearing a seatbelt and observing speed limits—are pretty obvious, protecting against longer-term injury can take a little more thought. This is where ergonomics gets involved.

In short, ergonomics is the science of fitting a job to a person, rather than the other way around. The goal is the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)—that is, injuries that affect muscles, nerves, blood vessels, ligaments and tendons. According to OSHA, work-related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time. These common injuries include:

Carpal tunnel syndrome, a neurological disorder that occurs when the median nerve, which runs from the forearm into the palm, becomes pressed or squeezed at the wrist.

Tendinitis, a condition where the tendons that connect muscle and bone become inflamed. It causes pain and tenderness next to joints and is most common around shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and heels.

Rotator cuff injuries caused by progressive wear and tear of shoulder tendons over time or a fall or other accident. It can cause a dull ache deep in the shoulder, accompanied by arm weakness.

Epicondylitis, more commonly known as tennis elbow, is swelling or tearing of the tendons that bend your wrist backward. It’s caused by repetitive motion of forearm muscles that attach to the outside of the elbow.

Trigger finger, which occurs when the tendon that controls a finger can’t glide smoothly in the sheath that surrounds it. This can result in finger stiffness, a popping or clicking sensation when fingers move and the finger catching or locking in a bent position.

Lower back injuries, which can result from a number of causes, including muscle strain, arthritis, structural back issues and disk injuries. In some cases, the pain can make it difficult to walk, sleep, work or do other everyday activities.

Bringing in ergonomics to reduce problems like these starts with understanding what factors involved in driving can affect our bodies. These can include poor posture, either by personal habit or a badly adjusted seat; low-frequency roadway vibration that can take a toll on the lower back; and the shape of the seat itself, which can create pressure points that affect blood flow to the legs and feet.

Taking the right steps

You can address these issues by making simple adjustments to how you interact with your vehicle. The following tips from business insurer CNA and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety can help minimize the risk of injury:

Make a move. When driving a long distance, make sure to take regular breaks to stretch and reposition your body. This can help counter the effects of continuous exposure to roadway vibrations, including lower back pain and weakness in the arms, shoulders and neck. Getting out of the driver’s seat and into fresh air can help you stay alert and prevent drowsiness. 

Adjust your seat. If possible, adjust the seat length so the back of your knees are a couple fingers’-width from the front of the seat, and tilt the seat cushion so your thighs are supported along their full length. Bring the seat forward enough so you can push the pedals through their full range with your whole foot, not just your toes, and adjust the seat back so it supports the full length of your back when you’re sitting upright. 

Check the wheel. The center of the steering wheel should be 10–12 inches from your breastbone—being closer could raise the risk of injury if the airbag deploys. If possible, tilt the wheel so the center points toward your chest, not your head, neck or stomach.

Exercise restraint. Raise the head rest until its top is level with the top of your head. If it can be tilted, adjust the angle until it’s almost touching the back of your head when sitting.

Additionally, take care getting out of the vehicle once you reach your destination. If you’re in a pickup, don’t just jump out of the cab, as this can create impact stress on your lower back. Instead, remember the rule of having three points of contact: use two hands and a foot or both feet and one hand, and use grab bars if you have them (not the steering wheel or door) to keep from being thrown off balance. And if the ground is wet or icy, slip-resistant shoes will help keep you safe.


Addressing safety with upfits

Contractor vehicles can serve as offices and warehouses on wheels. That’s a lot of capabilities to force into a single pickup truck or cargo van, especially if it’s not designed well for either of those duties. As a result, workers can end up putting themselves into uncomfortable positions to get their jobs done, which can lead to injury or long-term disability. 

Some risks are obvious, especially if they include tasks such as reaching into truck beds or lifting ladders off roof racks. It’s easy to visualize how doing these from an awkward position could place undue strain on the back and joints. But even getting in and out of a vehicle, especially if it features a raised suspension, can pose hazards.

“Sprains, strains, slips and falls are the most common injuries—every time a tech has to get in or out of the vehicle, there is an opportunity for injury,” said Jon Bezon, marketing representative for Adrian Steel, a Baltimore-based manufacturer of vehicle upfit systems. He notes the role such after-market products can play in improving worker safety and easing access to tools and supplies. 

“Reducing the number of times the tech has to climb in and out of the vehicle will reduce the possibility of injury,” he said. “The upfit should be designed to allow most common tools and consumables to be within an arm’s reach. Grab handles, steps, drop-down ladder racks, fold-down vise mounts and slide-outs are a few items that should be considered when choosing the right upfit.” —C.R.

Header image: Getty Images / seamartini

About The Author

ROSS has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for more than 25 years. Contact him at [email protected].

 

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