Fatigued workers can be danger to themselves, others

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The potentially deadly problem of trucker fatigue has the potential to change, even take, our lives every day.

Nearly every time folks from the Walla Walla Valley drive west to the Tri-Cities or east to Lewiston they are likely to pass — or be passed by — tractor-trailer rigs. And each time there is a very real possibility the driver has been on the roads for more than half a day and with no sleep for 24 hours. These truckers are exhausted and dangerous. They should not be on the road.

Regulations are in place aimed at ensuring drivers aren’t too tired to drive safely. They aren’t supposed to drive more than 11 hours in a 14-hour period each day.

But, as pointed out in a column written for the Los Angeles Times by researcher Karen Levy (printed in the U-B Perspective section July 27), those rules are skirted or flat-out ignored because truckers have to make a living. As truckers are fond of saying, Levy pointed out, “If the wheel ain’t turnin’, you ain’t earnin’!”

Economist Michael Belzer has compared trucks to “sweatshops on wheels” because of the low rates of pay, long working hours and unsafe conditions.

Truckers are not alone working long hours at jobs where lives — ours and theirs — are put at risk. Pilots, doctors and nurses, air traffic controllers and law enforcement officers can all put in very long hours with little rest.

Yes, rules are in place — some stronger than others — for these professions, but circumstances often result in workers putting in more time than is prudent.

Levy wrote that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration — the agency regulating the trucking industry — is likely to mandate electronic logging devices. This should, in theory, be an improvement over the easily falsified paper logs — which truckers sometimes call their “comic books,” Levy wrote.

Levy suggests that any real reform in trucking must come by focusing on the economics, which are the root of the problems.

And this focus could also curb fatigue issues in the other professions, such as medicine and law enforcement.

People work longer than they should because there are not enough people available to do the work required. In addition, many have to work extra hours to make enough money to pay their bills.

Mandating these types of economic changes in the private sector isn’t practical (nor always appropriate), but offering tax incentives for employers to create safer work environments that promote shorter shifts makes sense.

Ultimately, if enough progress is made focusing on economics, the culture that allows — even promotes — these dangerously long hours will change.

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