“Running you into the ground”: life as a HGV driver

By Gabriel Ferrante

Empty sections on supermarket shelves, a shortage of fuel at petrol stations and a lack of popular dishes at certain fast-food chains. The recent supply chain crisis over the last month has been due to a shortage of HGV drivers in the UK.

The shortage is a consequence of Brexit, which exacerbated the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic on an industry found unattractive by many workers. Most EU countries are barely showing the strain of the crisis seen in Britain, due to the weight of the problem being shared by free movement of labour between EU member states.

However, Logistics UK reports that the industry is facing a need of 90,000 drivers after a net loss of 69,000 lorry drivers in 2020-21 according to ONS figures. The main question is, why is Britain dependant on foreign HGV drivers and what is it about the job here that caused half of the 60,000 HGV licence holders in the UK to leave it?

This crisis had been brewing long before Brexit was even slapped on the side of a bus, with a BBC article in 2015 discussing issues with retention of HGV drivers and the UK’s dependence on EU drivers.

One key factor in the dearth of drivers is the unhealthy stress — both mental and physical — of the job itself. This exacerbates the effects of increases in bureaucracy and a reduction in the pound against the Euro, that has reduced the value of the job in post-Brexit Britain, to make these stressors the breaking point for many EU drivers to go elsewhere and for British drivers to throw in the hat and seek alternative employment.

According to a Health and Safety Executive Report about the Occupational Health and Extended Working lives in the Transport Sector, working as a professional HGV driver itself is a very dangerous job, with lots of responsibility. Driving a three-and-a-half-ton vehicle and managing an increasingly busy transport system is no mean feat. Yet this is the least of their troubles.

HGV drivers are almost guaranteed to work unreasonably long and unsociable hours, causing a lack of sufficient sleep or socialisation. On top of this, the work of HGV drivers requires long periods of sedentary driving with lots of pressure placed on them by companies, with one HGV driver describing the job as being “all about making profit for the company,” and “Running you into the ground.”

The long hours of work are often unreasonably scheduled with little notice, multiple different start times in the week and different shift durations spanning from eight to 15-hour long shifts.

In addition to this, there is a lack of provision of affordable and healthy food, regular toilet and welfare access or spaces for exercise at rest stops accessible to HGVs. With many HGV drivers reporting that they put on weight when unable to access regular healthy meals and to get a meal “you can’t park the wagon anywhere — and you are restricted on time — so it’s virtually impossible to eat healthily.” The associated increased risks of strokes and heart attack alongside the musculoskeletal strain of obesity and awareness of these risks also put pressure on drivers.

This, alongside the biological rhythm disruption due to the irregular hours characteristic of shift working and the stress to keep working and get deliveries to their depots on time, contributes massively to a suppression of the immune system due to high cortisol levels from stress and circadian rhythm disruption. This leads to an increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Over time as HGV drivers continue to unload heavy crates and trollies from their vehicles at depots, they become more prone to injury and musculoskeletal conditions from the repetitive strain of lifting and moving heavy loads. These risks of cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal conditions are accepted by many drivers who stay in the job.

The additional mental health impact of the job is also widespread, as the lack of regular sleep and antisocial hours cause extreme strain on drivers and their families. Some drivers are unable to see their children grow up or even maintain a social life.

Even if they can adapt to these conditions, the deprecating effect of the lack of toilets on the road (even those that are available can be in horrific conditions), and a disdainful attitude to drivers in general, cause a degrading working environment. This can make HGV drivers to feel massively underappreciated and sick of their jobs.

With all the above factors to consider, it’s unsurprising that the hike in pay — whilst appreciated — is only a half-measure in the grand scheme of things. It will do little to ameliorate the major problems with the industry. Highlighted in the report are recommendations to improve infrastructure and support for drivers so that they are able to complete their jobs with enough flexibility that they can maintain better physical and mental health.

Image: Victoria Cheng

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