Regulatory Update

Focus on Sleep Apnea in the Transportation Industry

Federal agencies are considering safety rules aimed at reducing the risks associated with drivers with untreated obstructive sleep disorder.
By: | April 7, 2016

An estimated 22 million people in the U.S. may have undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea. For workers in the transportation industry that can be deadly.

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The government is looking at accidents that resulted in multiple fatalities as it considers whether to propose requirements specific to obstructive sleep apnea. In the Federal Register notice, the government referred to the condition as a “national health and transportation safety issue.”

“Undiagnosed or inadequately treated moderate to severe OSA can cause unintended sleep episodes and deficits in attention, concentration, situational awareness, memory, and the capacity to safely respond to hazards when performing safety sensitive service,” the notice read.

“For individuals with OSA, eight hours of sleep can be less refreshing than four hours of ordinary, uninterrupted sleep, according to a study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The size and scope of the potential problem means that OSA presents a critical safety issue for all modes and operations in the transportation industry.”

“Undiagnosed or inadequately treated moderate to severe OSA can cause unintended sleep episodes and deficits in attention, concentration, situational awareness, memory, and the capacity to safely respond to hazards when performing safety sensitive service.” — Federal Register notice

OSA is described as a respiratory disorder in which there is a reduction or cessation of breathing while sleeping. Risk factors include obesity, male gender, advancing age, family history of OSA, large neck size, and an anatomically small oropharynx (throat).

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration issued a joint Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and will host three public listening sessions in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles.

“The collection and analysis of sound data on the impact of OSA must be our immediate first step,” said Scott Darling, acting administrator for the safety administration. “We call upon the public to help us better understand the prevalence of OSA among commercial truck and bus drivers, as well as the safety and economic impacts on the truck and bus industries.”

The FRA is also developing a rule that would require certain railroads to establish fatigue management plans.

The most recent fatal accident described in the notice occurred in the early morning hours in December 2013 when a Metro North Railroad commuter train derailed in New York City, killing four passengers and injuring at least 61 others.

The train had been traveling at 82 miles per hour despite the 30 mph speed limit when it came off a curved track. The engineer reported feeling dazed just before the accident and his wife complained about his snoring.

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A subsequent evaluation determined he had severe OSA. Despite having multiple risk factors, the driver had never been screened for the condition. The National Transportation Safety Board said his undiagnosed OSA had been exacerbated by a recent circadian rhythm shift required by his work schedule, causing him to fall asleep.

“It is imperative for everyone’s safety that commercial motor vehicle drivers and train operators be fully focused and immediately responsive at all times,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “DOT strongly encourages comment from the public on how to best respond to this national health and transportation safety issue.”

Nancy Grover is the president of NMG Consulting and the Editor of Workers' Compensation Report, a publication of our parent company, LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]