Safety view splits owner drivers and employer drivers

By: Cobey Bartels

Researchers highlight COR shortfall as report notes exposed drivers’ fears on speaking up

Safety view splits owner drivers and employer drivers
The TWU Safety Summit underway in Sydney


A deep divide has opened up between the safety experience of company drivers and owner-drivers, according to a co-author of the most recently released study on the issue in trucking.

Dr Sharron O’Neill, a senior lecturer within the School of Business at UNSW Canberra, co-wrote the report, Evaluating Approaches to Regulating WHS in the Australian Road Freight Transport Industry with Macquarie University Associate Professor Louise Thornthwaite.

The study was unveiled at Friday’s Transport Workers Union (TWU) Safety Summit in Sydney, funded by the union's training fund, TEACHO Ltd, and Macquarie University.

"We were asking both owner drivers and employer drivers a range of questions about their safety at work, what their work and workplace was like and how they feel about safety," O’Neill tells ATN.

 "We had 559 drivers respond to the survey, made up of 441 employee drivers and 118 owner drivers."

When asked if the results are what she expected, O’Neill admits the results are surprising.

"I don’t think it was what we were expecting," she says.

"There were two distinct groups of drivers.

"The majority of company drivers feel fairly safe at work.

"They’re happy with their schedules, happy with their hours, believing their employers have safe practices in place.

"You’re looking at probably 60 per cent that say the company enforce their policies; and 44 per cent say the contractor doesn’t want drivers to bend safety rules out on the road.

"But then there is a group of drivers who have a very different experience of safety at work.

"They reported long hours, poor schedules and little if any management support.

"Most importantly, they felt unable to refuse unsafe work and reported that drivers are reluctant to speak up about safety for fear of losing work.

"Owner drivers had mixed feelings too, with the majority outlining a range of key issues they face on the job.

"There were a pocket of owner drivers that were happy, but there’s a majority that aren’t, and some are quite unhappy.

"Fear of speaking up is a real problem, and the issue is losing work.

"Many drivers cited a need for better Chain of Responsibility (COR) enforcement, that’s a big one.

"They also reported things like drivers having insufficient room to manoeuvre, inadequate rest areas, even issues around point-to-point cameras.

"There were also complaints about not having enough facilities or that they’re taken by caravans."

O’Neill says there is a need for consistent measurement of injuries and more useful data, to improve overall safety.

"I think the way we measure injuries is a major problem, we’re so focused on lost time injury rates," she says.

"They highlight all those little minor things that frequently go wrong and then we get policies around the minor risks, but the higher risk issues get overlooked.

"We need to be measuring injury based whether they do serious damage to drivers or not..

"The Safe Work Australia data tells us truck registrations are rising but total injuries are falling. That’s a good thing.

"But, we’re also finding that the median cost of the lost time claim is going up – instead of 4.8 weeks lost per injury, it’s up to 6.6 weeks from 2004 to 2013.

"The median cost is also up from $5,800 to $10,300.

"That tells us that the injuries that are still happening are, on average, more severe"

"We can’t see that when we look at all injuries in total because the injuries that really cost lives and quality of life get hidden in the data by all the little stuff."

She notes that many fatalities and serious injuries occur in truck yards and depots, when the vehicle is still or moving slowly.

Findings show only 11.5 per cent of drivers reported working 40 hours or fewer. Further to this, more than a tenth of drivers reported working over 81 hours per week.

The paid versus unpaid work for all participants was also alarming, with 32 per cent of drivers not paid for refuelling and 18 per cent not paid for loading and unloading.

Elsewhere, O’Neill has said the study also examined the complex mix of regulation that exists in Australia to help ensure truck driver safety. The results revealed that while safety for many drivers was well managed, a significant minority had a very different experience.

"On the one hand we have well-managed businesses saying they have the safety issue under control, and on the other hand we have drivers telling us they suffer injuries and daily near-misses, and that every day could be their last," she is quoted by UNSW as saying.

"The work we have done validates all of the conflicting arguments and pieces them together, providing a powerful image of where various problems lie and what needs to improve."

She expresses confidence that the outcome will be seen as a valuable contribution to knowledge about the industry.

"There is a lot to be learned from the findings, but I suspect many in the industry will react very positively to our feedback," O’Neill says.

"The study brings the entire network of risk and regulation together.

"It illustrates how they relate and recommends new ways forward, including the need for a simplified mix of regulation and better enforcement that targets recalcitrant players and ensures better accountability across the entire chain of responsibility."

Thornthwaite also emphasises how involved the issue is.

"The research highlights a complex mix of regulation. It points to the importance of increasing enforcement and sanctions, particularly to ensure safety for those at the bottom of the supply chain including employees, owner drivers and others," the TWU quotes her as saying.

"This study highlights a ‘blame the victim’ culture, and calls for those at the top of the chain of responsibility to be held accountable for safety."

The TWU says the survey of truck drivers, which forms part of the report, shows:

More than 80 per cent of drivers work more than 50 hours a week; 10 per cent work over 80 hours one in six drivers who own their own trucks do not believe they can refuse an unsafe load

Almost one in five owner drivers said they would not report being pressured to falsify a work diary; 42 per cent of owner drivers said the reason drivers do not report safety breaches was because of a fear of losing their jobs

"This report showcases a supply chain which puts all the pressure on drivers at the bottom and none of the accountability on the top, the wealthy retailers and manufacturers," TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon says.

"It shows how this supply chain pits transport operators, which prioritise safety and employ experienced, trained drivers, against operators which cut corners and force drivers to take risks."

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