Commercial Trucking Disease: symptoms and treatment

healthcareDoes the trucking industry make the business harder, or more dangerous, than it needs to be? That’s the way many seem to like it.

I consider the possibility because of a fish tale that has captured the imaginations of landlubbers as it spreads around the Internet.

A Speck in the Sea,” by Paul Tough, ran in The New York Times Sunday Magazine this week. It’s the compelling, amazing-but-true story of John Aldridge, a professional fisherman out of Montauk, N.Y., who found himself overboard and alone last summer, bobbing in shark-infested North Atlantic waters without so much as a life jacket.

When reported missing by the crew of his boat, the Coast Guard calculated his window for survival at about 19 hours, but in reality he’d be lucky to hang on for three or four, based on similar incidents.

Spoiler alert: He survives and soon goes back to work.

Along with detailing the ingenuity and toughness of the fisherman, and the skill and resources of the U.S. Coast Guard, the story also focuses on the inherently dangerous work of commercial fishing, the brotherhood and the traditions.

In the story, these fellow fisherman tear-up when they recall the rescue, suggesting the “unspoken” and “inescapable” risk of their jobs.

“If you step inside the Dock any given afternoon, you’ll very likely find fishermen drinking and talking about ballgames and elections, D.U.I.’s and divorces,” Tough writes, referring to a local fisherman’s tavern. “You’re very likely, too, to hear them talking, sometimes overtly, sometimes not, about the loss of a way of life — the government regulations that make it harder to make a living as a commercial fisherman, the vanishingly small margins for doing the dangerous work they do, the way this place where they’ve made their home is less recognizable to them with each passing year.”

The conversation can be heard every day in truck stops as well.

But here’s the thing: The fisherman, like too many drivers, got complacent, or at least too casual, in doing work that is potentially very dangerous indeed. But when you do it all day, everyday, without devoting your full attention to the work, you could find yourself lost at sea (or party to a catastrophic Interstate pile-up).

In a follow-up piece published on gCaptain, a veteran seaman and maritime safety expert praised the story and said it should be required reading for anyone who works offshore.

“But what struck me most wasn’t Aldridge’s will to live or the harrowing details of his survival; it wasn’t the incredible search effort to find him, either,” writes Mario Vittone. “It was that Aldridge, like so many commercial fishermen before him, seemed to be trying very hard to die.”

Vittone then details the symptoms of what he calls Commercial Fishing Disease (CFD), a preventable waterborne ailment common to those proud, stubborn individualists who make their living harvesting the bounty of the oceans, particularly “most of the ones I’ve met in the back of a [rescue] helicopter,” he adds.

Though the proximate cause of the accident was as trivial as the broken handle of an ice chest, Vittone spells out the series of mistakes that led to Aldridge winding up in the drink. He then proposes remedies that, in hindsight, are obvious (comically so, except the man almost died):

1. Never work alone on the deck of an open boat while 40 miles offshore when the boat is on autopilot.

2. If you are going to work alone on the open deck of a boat while 40 miles offshore in the dark, consider wearing a life jacket.

3. If you go offshore for a living, consider spending about $275 on a Personal EPIRB (distress radio beacon).

4. Try to sleep more than zero hours every 24.

5. If you work on a boat where one person is awake while the rest of the crew sleeps, then 1. Reconsider that arrangement, and 2. Spend five dollars on an alarm clock.

In his piece, Vittone goes into more (humorous) detail, highlighting how mistake each is sign of widespread CFD, and he encourages those fisherman who believe Aldrich hadn’t done anything wrong to seek help.

“There is hope out there that CFD is not a real disease, but rather a culture problem within the industry that some are trying to change,” he concludes. “Perhaps it is time for commercial fishermen to realize that their job is more dangerous than it needs to be, that most of the risk in their work is unnecessary, and perhaps they should stop trying so hard to die out there.”

So, what about Commercial Trucking Disease (CTD), as manifested by the belief that the industry will be ruined before it’s changed?

First, if you say there’s no such thing, seek treatment. If you use your good safety record as a justification to keep doing things “your way,” seek treatment. If you cuss the DOT while pressing the accelerator, seek treatment.

And I’m not just talking about Billy BigRig cowboy drivers, here. I’m looking at you, company owner – especially if you sat behind the wheel before you earned the big chair in the executive conference room. Especially if you talk a lot about the famously “good ol’ days.” Seek treatment.

Do you think you know better than the regs, and circumvent them at every opportunity? Or maybe you just set minimum compliance as a goal, and sometimes you don’t quite achieve all of your goals – that’s business? Seek treatment.

Does the safety department get lip service (and front page coverage on the company newsletter) but operations has the all the real authority? Seek treatment.

For driver managers: Do you insist on dispatch, over a driver’s objection, because you know he’s just lazy? Seek treatment.

And this is just the top 1/32s of an inch of the many, many layers of CTD. I’m sure everyone in the business can come up with plenty of other symptoms.

Of course, in trucking there are very few disasters with a happy ending. More subtly, CTD thrives on the all-or-nothing nature of the business: If nothing broke, nobody got hurt and the load got delivered, then nothing happened – no matter how many close calls along the way. And if nothing happened, then there’s no lesson to be learned.

And this is where in-cab monitoring systems and telematics are changing the industry. Moments of terror and near misses that might be the subject of a coffee break whopper at the truck stop and soon forgotten can become teachable moments when they’re logged and reported to the safety department. Drivers may resist (another symptom) until they realize these heart-racing moments shouldn’t be considered just part of the job.

The lesson comes in the first line of the fishing tall tale: “Looking back, John Aldridge knew it was a stupid move.”

But at least he could look back, and maybe learn something.