Innovators: A healthy balance

With co-owner Bill Myles (left) focused on sales, Trucks Inc. President Frankie Willis (right) brought a non-trucking perspective to safety and risk management, including the notion that companies should consider employee health just as much a part of loss control as highway safety and equipment management.

When Frankie Willis joined Trucks Inc. in 1990 as co-owner and president, she knew little about trucking; her career had been in banking. But the company, which had been in business since 1983 as a leased fleet, obtained its own operating authority in 1992. And with co-owner Bill Myles focused on sales, Willis basically became safety director overnight.

Willis’ lack of trucking experience may have been a blessing. Without the preconceptions that might hamper veterans, she adopted a philosophy that drivers aren’t just workers but rather assets to be protected and cared for. And in Suzanne Jarman, who joined the company in 1994 from a similar financial background, Willis found a colleague who saw things the same way.

“Suzanne had the same philosophy that I had to focus on the driver,” Willis says. “If we can keep them stable, issues like turnover take care of themselves.”

Turnover was less than 20 percent in the early days and remains below 30 percent. That’s particularly impressive considering Trucks Inc.’s growth: The regional truckload carrier had about 40 trucks when it got its authority and grew about 40 percent a year for the first four years. Today, it operates about 320 trucks, but it still doesn’t have a recruiting department; virtually all hires are through word of mouth.

Willis is proud of Trucks Inc.’s safety record – the company has received annual safety awards from the Georgia Motor Trucking Association for the past 11 years – but she questions why some trucking companies that focus intensively on highway safety treat driver health as none of their business. Liability insurance providers insist that motor carriers implement programs to manage safety and control loss, but except for workers’ compensation mandates, trucking companies don’t seem to do much about healthcare costs.

Driver wellness is as much about risk management and loss control as driver skills training or truck maintenance, Willis says. “We spend all of this money to manage this unit that costs $80,000. We saw an opportunity to do this with each employee.”

Throughout the 1990s, Trucks Inc. had paid dearly for a fully insured health plan with annual increases of 20 to 40 percent. About five years ago, however, the company went to a self-funded health benefits program backed up with an umbrella policy. “If we were going to spend our own money on health, we wanted to opportunity to participate in savings,” Willis says.

Willis sees the risk in terms that go beyond dollars, however. “You can replace a tractor easily. Replacing a good, honest, safe, healthy driver is pretty difficult.”

Detection and education
Recognizing that early detection and treatment is critical, Willis hired a consultant to train Jarman – who is vice president of safety, operations and human resources – along with herself and other office personnel who interact regularly with drivers on how to recognize warning signs of stress, diabetes, high blood pressure and other health risk conditions.

Also, Trucks Inc. several years ago shifted to an annual Department of Transportation physical rather than the two years DOT requires. Annual exams catch problems faster, and the additional expense turned out to be fairly small. “We had a large number of people who had high blood pressure and diabetes and were having to get annual cards anyway,” Jarman says.
Since the company switched to the annual physical exam, Jarman estimates that the savings in healthcare costs alone – not to mention lives saved – are more than $250,000. Successes in early detection include two cancer cases, five pre-heart attack conditions and a number of pre-diabetes conditions, she says.

Success stories are encouraged to spread the word, although Willis and Jarman usually don’t need to ask. “We joke that word travels faster by CB than by telephone,” Jarman says. Still, each driver safety meeting involves a discussion of health issues, including a driver testimonial if possible.

Self-awareness is another important tool. Several years ago, Jarman asked all employees to complete a personal health risk factor assessment – an extensive questionnaire on lifestyle factors that calculates age in terms of health rather than years since they were born. “It was amazing to see the number of people who were 10 to 20 years older in health age than their chronological age,” Willis says.

The company uses safety meetings and other opportunities to promote healthy lifestyle choices that might detect potential problems before they begin to escalate. “Smoking is the leading cause of some of the big problems our drivers face,” says Jarman. So the company pays for the first round of a smoking cessation program and offers discounted access to further treatment, such as patches or even hypnotism.

Willis and Jarman like to keep health education simple. They might bring in cans of Crisco and bottles of olive oil to make a point about saturated fats, for example. Realizing that drivers’ lives are in truck stops, they bring in menus from truck stop restaurants and circle the items that are lower in fat.

“We accept that fact that it is tough,” Willis says. “They don’t have a chef with them all the time like Oprah does.”

Individual attention
The outreach is important, but Willis and Jarman believe their approach to employee wellness truly works because it’s managed at the employee level. Health management and claims prevention are part of the job description for Trucks Inc.’s four safety professionals, Willis says. “The safety department maintains a lengthy profile on each driver that includes health issues. Anybody who has a significant problem, it’s a managed case.”

This kind of individualized management might fail at some trucking companies due to drivers’ objections over the intrusion. But Willis and Jarman think it works because of Trucks Inc.’s culture of respect for the driver from upper management to dispatchers to maintenance.

“We have a very personal environment here,” Jarman says. “We get very little resistance. When it does occur, it’s more about being afraid of doctors than about us interfering with their lives. We have not had anybody who hasn’t come around.”

Still, Trucks Inc. isn’t reckless or na