Report reveals overworked truck drivers fear raising safety concerns

3 February 2017

A Macquarie University report has revealed the major reasons why truck driving is Australia’s deadliest job. Long hours, pressure to drive unsafe schedules with unsafe loads and an inability to raise safety concerns without jeopardising their jobs are among the risks to safety facing drivers.

The report criticises a lack of training and a “critical gap” since the Government abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal “that can eliminate existing incentives for overly tight scheduling, unpaid work, and rates that effectively are below cost recovery”.

The report was launched today at a Safety Summit organised by the Transport Workers’ Union bringing together truck drivers, industry, academics and politicians to devise a plan to deal with the crisis in trucking.

Associate Professor Louise Thornthwaite from Macquarie University said: “The research highlights a complex mix of regulation. It points to the importance of increasing enforcement and sanctions, particularly to ensure safety for those at the bottom of the supply chain including employees, owner drivers and others. This study highlights a “blame the victim” culture, and calls for those at the top of the chain of responsibility to be held accountable for safety.”

A survey of truck drivers, which forms part of the report shows:

  • Over 80% of truck drivers work more than 50 hours a week; 10% work over 80 hours
  • One in six drivers who own their own trucks do not believe they can refuse an unsafe load
  • Almost one in five owner drivers said they would not report being pressured to falsify a work diary. Of this 42% said the reason for not reporting would be fear of losing their job

“This report showcases a supply chain which puts all the pressure on drivers at the bottom and none of the accountability on the top, the wealthy retailers and manufacturers. It shows how this supply chain pits transport operators, which prioritise safety and employ experienced, trained drivers, against operators which cut corners and force drivers to take risks,” said TWU National Secretary Tony Sheldon.

Dr Sharron O’Neill of UNSW, co-author of the report, said: “This research shows there are safe and unsafe workplaces in the transport industry and highlights how and why they coexist. The study takes a big picture look at the complex web of risk factors driving the unacceptably high rate of fatality and injury to road transport workers. It also highlights the very different degrees to which drivers experience safety at work.”

Truck driver Frank Black said rates and payment times have slipped since the Government abolished the tribunal last April, making the job even more dangerous. “Things are going backwards and the pressure on drivers is growing. The Government can’t be surprised at the high number of deaths and injuries on the roads,” he said.

“Safe Work Australia showed that last year one out of every three workplace deaths involved a transport worker – now we know why. This report documents a supply chain which puts all the pressure on drivers at the bottom and none of the accountability on the top, the wealthy retailers and manufacturers. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has to take responsibility for contributing to this situation when he tore down the tribunal and turned his back on a solution to this crisis,” said Sheldon.

Reports released by the Federal Government last April acknowledged the link between safety and the pay rates of drivers. One report also showed a system of safe rates, where drivers are paid minimum rates for all their work, would cut truck crashes by 28%*.

In the 10 years to 2014 over 2,500 truck drivers and other road users died in truck crashes.


  1. Safe Rates

In April the Federal Government abolished a system backing safe rates that was holding wealthy clients such as retailers, banks, oil companies and ports to account for low cost contracts, which do not allow their goods to be delivered safely. This was despite the Government’s own reports showing a link between road safety and the pay rates of drivers and that the safe rates system would reduce truck crashes by 28%*. An Order delivering safe rates for the first time was in operation for just two weeks before the entire system was torn down.

  1. Evidence of pressure

A Safe Work Australia report in July 2015 showed

  • 31% of employers say workers ignore safety rules to get the job done
  • 20% accept dangerous behaviour, compared to less than 2% in other industries.
  • 20% of transport industry employers break safety rules to meet deadlines – this compares with just 6% of employers in other industries.
  1. Low pay

Many owner drivers are not making enough to get by as it is with average income of just under $29,500 and $29% of them underpaid (this is based on an analysis by PriceWaterhouseCoopers of the 2006 census which was included in the regulatory impact statement for the Road Safety Remuneration Bill 2011). Transport companies are consistently in the top five industries for insolvency, with the vast majority of them small firms with five or less full-time employees.

  1. Bankruptcies

According to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, transport operators have one of the highest rates of insolvencies of any industry and small firms of five full time employees or less are the most likely to go bankrupt. In the financial year to June 2015 there were 275 insolvencies among these small operators. In the financial year before that there were 548 insolvencies. The main reason for the insolvencies was inadequate cash flow.

  1. Suicide

Suicide is currently rampant among truck drivers. A study by Deakin University showed 323 truck drivers committed suicide between 2001 and 2010. (Suicide among male road and rail drivers in Australia: a retrospective mortality study). An analysis by the Victorian coroner’s court showing truck drivers had the highest number of suicides out of any other profession, with 53 drivers taking their own lives between 2008 to 2014.

* PricewaterhouseCoopers “Review of the Road Safety Remuneration System Final Report January 2016” (PWC Review 2016 – published by the Commonwealth Department of Employment on 1 April, 2016)


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