OHSU study will examine how driving a bus affects new drivers' health, including the usual fifteen pounds added in the first year.

COURTESY: TRIMET  - A TriMet bus operator at work. OHSU will study how becoming a bus driver affects health.

Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University are collaborating on a study of the health of bus drivers.

Knowing that it is a job that combines stress with a sedentary lifestyle, doctors have obtained a grant to study around 300 new bus drivers across northwest states to see how the job affects their physical and mental health.

The study is being led by Ryan Olson, Ph.D., an associate professor in OHSU's Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences and the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. The project's research team members come from both OHSU and PSU.

The drivers will participate in an occupational health program previously created by the research team, tailored for bus operators and integrated with existing new employee training activities. In a previous study, Olson helped commercial truck drivers lose an average of nearly eight pounds over six months.

TriMet is one of the transit agencies involved. Bus drivers, or operators as they are known, will compete in groups to see who can amass the most healthy choices. Individuals can also win recognition even if their team lets them down.

They will receive online training, coaching and peer support.

Olson stressed that competition is a key ingredient for motivating people to get healthy.

Fares please

The study is about more than weight loss. Operators will have goals around safety, health and well-being. The concept is "newcomer success."

The five-year, $3.5-million research project aims to help new bus operators succeed early in their driving careers and avoid health pitfalls.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - TriMet's headquarters building on Southeast 17th Avenue has nap rooms and a gym. Bus operators sleep is often disrupted by split shifts covering early morning and evening rush hours.

It's all about seeing if new recruits can stave off the unhealthy lifestyle that traditionally comes with the job.

The study will assess new drivers' working conditions and measure how driving might disrupt eating, exercise, sleep and weight. Olson said it could not be done without the help of the drivers union, the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, whose members include TriMet operators.

"Operating a bus is hard on your body," said ATU 757 President Shirley Block. "You're sitting in one position for hours at a time, you have to navigate any number of traffic hazards, and you have to do it all while safely getting your riders where they need to go. It's no surprise that operators can experience high rates of chronic illness and stress-related conditions."

TriMet has gyms — not just at its expensively remodeled headquarters along Southeast 17th Avenue, but at its other two garages, too.

"We value our bus operators as their hard work and dedication is vital to TriMet and our riders," said Harry Saporta, TriMet executive director of Safety & Security.

OHSU cites industry estimates that indicate a new bus operator may gain between seven and 20 pounds in their first year if employers and workers do not take preventive actions.

King of random

Details are secret of how the study will be randomized, but an OHSU spokesperson said, "the study will split bus drivers into two groups: one group that participates in a competitive program that encourages drives to monitor and improve their body weight, health and more, and a second control group not involved in that program."

But all drivers involved in the study, regardless of whether they're in the treatment or the control group, will receive three separate confidential health screenings throughout the course of the study.

"Being new in any industry is exciting and stressful. Our collaborator Dr. Talya Bauer (of the Portland State University School of Business) specializes in onboarding," Olson said of new workers. Bauer's studies have shown how successful onboarding in the first year improves worker effectiveness, satisfaction and retention.

"Giving new employees the inside scoop on workplace culture can help reduce turnover and improve productivity," Bauer said.

Olson hopes the techniques they develop over five years can be licensed to other transit authorities around the world and earn revenue for both universities.

"No scientific study has looked at early working conditions," Olson said.

TriMet has been on a hiring drive for several years so there are many new drivers.

Operators will be recruited to the study before they have begun their training as bus drivers, which starts with a Commercial Drivers License and customer service instruction in the classroom.


For commercial drivers, free health screenings are a valuable retention tool, and hypertension is a regulated medical condition.

"Transit agencies have already done a ton of training," Olson said. "We want to integrate support for health and well being. We want to support each agency's efforts."

He added that he hopes in the future their ideas will be integrated into bus driver training, and believes the changes can be implemented without much extra work.

With the truckers he did not study onboarding, but OHSU is working on a study about how social support at home and work is affecting their long-term health outcomes.

Olson has seen a lot of driver break rooms and they are not especially unhealthy — they have games and computers and encourage relaxation. The hard parts of the job include prolonged sitting, which is not good for the muscles and skeleton, interrupted sleep from so-called split shifts (two rush hours a day) as well as the general stress of dealing with traffic and passengers.

Drivers will be issued scientific quality monitors (better than consumer grade FitBits) and will have to record progress on a mobile website. There is no app. This is to prevent any distracted driving.

Applicants for bus driving jobs should start seeing flyers for the study in 2018. The pilot begins in 2019.

COURTESY: TRIMET - Thomas Thor Dunn, 36, is a new TriMet driver who fights weight gain with naps, the gym and 2 minute planks.

Thomas "Thor" Dunn

Age 36, he drives the 96 in the morning, out to Tualatin and two OHSU expresses, the 65 to Spring Garden and 58 express to Goose Hollow. He has been driving for almost three years.

He had no thoughts about bus driver health before taking the job.

"When we went into training, that's when the trainers were straight up with us: it's a sedentary job and you gain a lot of weight. They call it the freshman fifteen, because on average drivers gain 15 pounds in their first year of service. Half the trainers had weight issues themselves, some of them had gastro bypass surgeries... When you go in the bull pen at the garage, that's when you see it."

Does he talk about health with other drivers?

"I go to the gym, the TEI (TriMet Employees Incorporated), every day. It's something TriMet employees put together 40 years ago. I meet up with a lot of other operators, and we have our network. I'm on the board of directors for TEI, we're really trying to motivate operators to take this first step. It's clearly a problem, no disrespect, but this is by far the unhealthiest occupation I've ever seen."

Dunn has been a landscaper, a scheduling agent for an interpreting agency, and he was an interpreter for the deaf and hard of hearing (his parents are deaf). "As a scheduler it was an office job, for seven years I tied to stay active, I sat on a ball, I had a standing desk. The irony is I'm more active now as a driver than I was at any point in my life. With the health fears I see I am much more proactive. I see the end result."

He says the unhealthy part of being an operator comes down to three things. Food is an issue.

"When we lay over there are no real good choices. It's Jack in the Box, McDonald's. Second, you sitting in a seat for hours on end, you don't feel as motivated to move around when you are on break. And then sleep. There are operators who don't fight to get eight hours of sleep, and you need it to stay motivated to stay active and go to the gym."

His board is trying to get a list of healthy eateries near layovers, and give out water bottles and resistance bands at the 40th anniversary of TEI.

There's a nap room at TriMet. Dunn takes two 45-minute naps a day, because he has an extreme split shift, getting up at 4.30 am and finishing at 6.30 pm.

"The drivers I see at the gym, they're the ones who make their lunches, they're the ones who bring a salad. And even others, I see carry on lunch boxes."

A mini-runner or part-timer doesn't work more than five-and-a-half hours a day. Their day is split up with 30- and 15-minute breaks. A full timer works eight hours with a 30-minute and two 15-minute breaks.

What can you do in 15 minutes?

"You can do a lot. Even when I'm at a time point, where we have to stop until we're caught up, I get out of my seat, I do stretches...TriMet Employees Incorporated has three trainers, they're very helpful, and they've taught us all sort of stretches and exercises. I can do pull-ups on the bar inside the bus, just get my body out of atrophy, planks, push ups. You don't need weights, you can bring a band. You just have to stay motivated. I think the problem with this occupation is a lot of drivers feel resigned to their state. But we here at TriMet and TEI, we're trying to change that perception."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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