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Fatal: Australian trucking’s annual death-toll

Australia’s road freight industry takes a fatal toll on its drivers. Fatigue, caused by shift work, driving vast distances under pressure, a lack of truck stops and patterns of casual employment, has been implicated as a major cause of deadly accidents. Australian road trucking has a death rate nearly six times greater than the national average. Photo: Shutterstock .

Australian trucking continues to prove fatally dangerous to drivers, and to bystanders too, according to the latest statistics from Safe Work Australia, a statutory entity, set up to advise on a variety of workplace health and safety matters.

In the run-up to Christmas 2018, the body released its report, “Work-related traumatic injury fatalities Australia 2017,” which makes for grim reading.

There were 190 workers who were fatally injured at work in Australia in 2017, which gives a fatality rate of 1.5 workers per 100,000 workers. By way of comparison, the Australian transport-sector recorded fatality rate is 8.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. That’s 5.7 times greater than the Australian national average. There were 54 deaths in the ‘transport, postal and warehousing’ sector, which accounts for 28 percent of all worker-deaths in 2017, according to Safe Work Australia. Sixty-three percent (119 of the 190 fatalities) were related to vehicles of various descriptions.

“Road transport’s large share of fatalities is not due to industry size, but due to [a] disproportionately high fatality rate…” Safe Work Australia commented, adding that Australian road transport is a high risk industry.

Road transport risk factors

Risk factors include drivers feeling pressured to go fast and skip breaks, the nature of shift work and fatigue.

Tara O’Connell, the general manager of Australian workplace health and safety consulting company, Labour Health, shared her insights with FreightWaves about the nature of trucking-related collisions and fatalities in Australia.

“Most collisions take place overnight, involving long distances. Drivers veer off,” she said, pointing out that drivers have few places to stop. There can be few really restful truck stops on certain routes where drivers can get out of their cabs, walk around and be properly stimulated, she explained.

“Given we are on a big island and most products are imported and then transported by road, there should be better resources for drivers. But who’s going to pay?” she asked.

O’Connell stated that fatigue is an issue. “It counts for so much.”

In addition to the issues surrounding rest stops, or the lack thereof, she points to patterns of employment as being a safety risk factor. She says that there is a pattern of casual employment in the Australian trucking industry. Such drivers typically are paid minimum rates under the Road Transport (Long Distance Operations) Award 2010, which, for the purpose of this article, can be thought of as an Australian industry-wide basic contract that sets out minimum standards. Casual truckers working for minimum pay while on limited hours have an economic incentive to find work elsewhere, either working for other trucking companies or, these days, driving for Uber.

And while fleet managers can control the hours their employees can work, they can’t control employees who are moonlighting.

“They’re turning up fatigued,” said O’Connell.

She pointed out that distances driven by truckers around Australia are “vast” and that highways can be in a poor condition because of floods, general adverse weather and cyclones. Roads can have potholes, damage to the surface and poor road markings, among other things. “The Bruce Highway is known for being in a poor condition,” she added.

The Bruce Highway is a “major north-south freight and commuter corridor.” It connects the state capital, Brisbane, to Cairns in the far north of Queensland – a distance of 1,677 kilometres, according to the Queensland Department of Transport.

Other vehicle-related deaths

Safe Work Australia also reports that there were 11 people killed after being hit by a moving object that was either a truck, semi-trailer, lorry, car, station-wagon, van or utility vehicle. There were also a variety of other deaths from non-truck mobile equipment (e.g. self-propelled machinery). A further two people died after falling from trucks, semi-trailers or lorries.

There were 19 people killed in collisions involving a heavy vehicle and three who died after a collision with a light vehicle. Ten people died in collisions between at least two heavy vehicles and six people died in collisions involving a mix of heavy and light vehicles.

There were also 41 members of the general public (bystanders) who died after being hit by a vehicle that was being used for work-purposes.

Long term trends

Over a five year period (2013-2017) there were 177 road freight transport related deaths in Australia. There were 137 deaths from vehicle collisions, 14 from being hit by moving objects and 8 from being hit by falling objects. O’Connell suggests that the deaths from being hit by moving or falling objects could be associated with falling loads that were not properly secured in the truck.

Further analysis of those deaths shows that 149 people were killed in a vehicle-related incident either driving / moving freight or people. A further 10 people died either loading or unloading freight to or from a vehicle. There were also 14 road freight-related deaths in which no vehicle was involved; two of those deaths involved loading or unloading of freight.

Declining death rates

Although these figures are tragic, it is clear that the numbers of road-related deaths is trending downwards. The death-rate (all industries) hit a peak of 3.0 deaths per 100,000 workers in both 2004 and 2007. Since then the death rate has steadily declined by half to 1.5 deaths per 100,000 workers.

O’Connell explains why. “The rates are coming down because there has been a concerted effort by the road transport industry. There has been a big focus on drug-reduction usage. The health and well-being programmes of, for example, Toll and Linfox, are second to none.”

She also pointed to the Chain of Responsibility laws as being a factor in helping Australian trucking to become safer, along with more strict enforcement of rest breaks and days off.