Media Center

May 3

Driving a Bus is Harzardous to Your Health

Chronic work-related diseases are hard to see just by looking at someone. Take your local bus driver, for example. Recent innovative research by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that bus drivers and other "passenger transit workers" suffer greater rates of illness than workers in many other industries and occupations. Transit work is one of the top three jobs in which you face the highest risk of contracting 10 common diseases. Job-related hazards also contribute to the fact that these workers have 120% above the average rate for 9 chronic diseases.

Tim Bushnell from NIOSH presented these preliminary results at an International Transportation Federation health and safety conference in December 2011 in San Francisco. He found the startling numbers by looking at the employer-based group health insurance medical claims of two insurance companies. They reflect people's real health problems, rather than incomplete workers' compensation claims.

Bushnell studied the records of 214,413 workers in 55 sectors-two-thirds of all possible types of workplaces. "Passenger transit workers" include all types of bus drivers, as well as commuter rail, streetcar, subway, van pool, airport limousine, taxi, and ambulance drivers.

The scariest finding: 41.5% of the transit workers had hypertension (high blood pressure), compared to 27.6% for all the 214,413 workers studied. High blood pressure leads to all kinds of other health problems, including heart attacks and strokes. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

For a range of chronic diseases such as low back pain, asthma, depression, and diabetes (see graphic), the drivers' rates also were 120% higher than all people in the 55 sectors.

These numbers were no surprise to Dr. June Fisher, a long-time San Francisco General Hospital physician.

"Many years ago, Local 250A of the Transport Workers Union in San Francisco were concerned about heart attacks among their members in the MUNI system," she says. "Analyzing the medical exams required for their commercial drivers' license, we found high rates of hypertension. When we did continuous blood pressure monitoring while they were driving, even the healthiest drivers had extraordinary increases in blood pressure."

Since then, many studies have confirmed that urban bus drivers are at high risk for many illnesses.

"We know from Denmark that urban bus drivers have the highest rates of hospital admissions for cardiac disease," Fisher says. "The DOT medical exams could be used to track all the drivers with hypertension and related health problems now. We need to prevent the hazards behind those high numbers too."

Preliminary numbers show transit drivers have these diseases at rates above the average for workers in 55 industries/sectors. The star indicates when they are in the top three for that condition.

Excerpt from "Dying at Work in California: The Hidden Stories Behind the Numbers"