August 11, 2016 4:00 PM, EDT

Female-Friendly Equipment Prevents Injuries, Improves Ease of Use, Drivers, Suppliers Say

Debra Devine/Transport Topics
This story appears in the Aug. 8 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

To help attract and retain female drivers, a number of fleets and manufacturers are adding specialized equipment to help reduce injuries and minimize the amount of strength needed to complete certain tasks, which contribute to a better life on the road.

For example, Werner Enterprises, which is based in Omaha, Nebraska, equips its trucks with a fifth wheel release that allows the driver to disconnect the tractor from the trailer by touching a button in the cab instead of getting out of the truck and climbing underneath it.

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Felicia Berggren, an over-the-road professional driver with the company, said this specialized equipment has helped prevent injuries she experienced before having it. “I don’t know how many times I hurt my shoulder because it was hard to maneuver. Just being able to hit that button is so much easier,” she said.

About 10% of Werner’s driver base is female, which is about double the national average. Werner ranks No. 15 on the Transport Topics 2016 Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada.

Brooke Mosley, the female driver liaison at Prime Inc., based in Springfield, Missouri, and No. 18 on the for-hire TT100, has found that the height of items within the sleeper can be a challenge for some women and has had female drivers fall trying to get into the top bunk. “There has to be some way to figure out how to pull something out from the wall or something that is safer for them,” she said.

The No. 1 source of injuries to drivers is a fall from the cab and the second source of injuries are related to adjusting the trailer’s landing gear, said Brian Kujala, director of sales for Grandville, Michigan-based Hadley, which manufactures SmartValve.

SmartValve makes drop-and-hook applications easier by replacing a mechanical leveling valve with an electro-leveling valve. Drivers back up just enough to grab onto the trailer and push a button to lift the trailer over ride height to take the weight of the trailer off of the landing gear, making it easier to raise and lower it, Kujala said.

The weight required to crank landing gear is 150 pounds at the apex, Kujala said. “With SmartValve, the driver still has to crank, but it gets the weight of the trailer off of the landing gear legs.”

Manufacturers said they’re working to reduce the amount of force needed in a variety of applications. For example, Freightliner uses a hydraulic hood return to make opening the hood easier, said Mary Aufdemberg, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks, and chairwoman of the board of directors at the Women in Trucking Association.

Prime, whose female driver population makes up about 12% of its driver base, also started purchasing trucks with automatic transmissions, and Mosley said Prime hopes to purchase enough to offer a more comfortable transition to truck driving for women.

Meanwhile, Covenant Transport has focused on recruiting female drivers because just more than 15% of Covenant Transport’s driving fleet is made up of women. Rob Hatchett, vice president of recruiting at Covenant, said, however, it is not the equipment that appeals to women. “We have a culture of safety and a culture of belonging,” he said. “If you don’t have the right culture, you can throw every bell and whistle at it but they won’t feel like they’re a part of it.”

Covenant Transport’s parent, Covenant Transportation Group, ranks No. 43 on the for-hire TT100.

Mosley also said that women value new equipment because it breaks down less. “They feel safer in their equipment. They aren’t waiting on the side of the road for emergency service,” she said. Prime also adds a deer guard to minimize damage if a driver hits a deer, allowing he or she to continue on their route without having to pull over and wait for maintenance.