Is the Trucking Industry Asleep At The Wheel On Sleep Apnea?

  • There are many challenges facing the trucking industry in the United States, many of which have major implications for road safety. While some of these problems are more obvious than others (regulatory compliance, labor problems, etc.), one particular challenge is proving to be much bigger than expected.

    Obstructive sleep apnea may not sound like a problem that warrants much concern but, as study after study points out, this sleep disorder is widespread among truck drivers. Not only is it a huge deal for the health of the big rig drivers sharing our roads and delivering our goods, it also puts every motorist at risk for accidents and injuries.

    What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea?

    Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a condition in which a person’s upper airways are blocked while sleeping. The body works overtime during sleep, fighting to get oxygen to the lungs and leaving those with the condition without quality sleep and an increased risk for certain medical complications. This sleep disorder is also a respiratory problem, one that is often accompanied by other major health issues, like heart disease and diabetes.

    How OSA Among Truckers Impacts All Of Us

    As it turns out, OSA is much more widespread than experts once thought. It is estimated that around 28 percent of truck drivers might currently have this condition. But what does that matter to non-truck drivers?

    One of the biggest ways that OSA among truck drivers impacts the rest of us stems from the manner in which it curbs the alertness of a driver. Truck drivers need to be responsive to their environment. They are operating vehicles that weigh over 33,000 pounds and take much longer to brake in an emergency. Being completely alert and in command of the vehicle is vital when it comes to ensuring the safety of the driver and all of those operating a vehicle in the vicinity of an 18-wheeler.

    The Dangers of Drowsy Driving

    Drowsy driving is on par with impaired driving and distraction when it comes to road safety. Fatigued driving takes up to 64,000 lives every year in the United States.

    When we narrow our focus in on fatigued truck drivers, the picture painted by recent studies is even more alarming. Studies suggest that truck drivers who suffer from OSA have crash rates five times higher than those who don’t suffer from OSA.

    Does a Truck Driver’s Lifestyle Lead To Sleep Apnea?

    The job of a truck driver is a tough one, and one that might lend itself to a less-than-optimal picture of health. Truckers stay relatively sedentary for long periods of time. They may also find that eating healthy while on the job is a difficult prospect. It’s easy to see why a life on the road can easily lead to an unhealthy lifestyle.

    The transportation department released a report citing studies suggesting that truck drivers have obesity rates over twice those of the national working population. The rate of cigarette smoking among truckers is also double that of the national average working population. This is a big concern because these factors greatly increase a person’s likelihood of having OSA.

    The Impact of the Trucking Labor Crisis on OSA

    The trucking business has been juggling a number of challenges in recent years, including a massive problem with labor. Multiple lawsuits over truck driver pay and benefits have highlighted the increasingly contentious relationship between labor and management. This has led to what is being called - mostly by the trucking industry - a “truck driver shortage.” In short, this simply means that workers are leaving the industry because pay is not competitive and the working conditions are less than optimal.

    Identifying and treating sleep apnea is expensive and will require a significant investment by the trucking industry. Since the industry hasn’t demonstrated that they are willing to provide workers with adequate pay and benefits, the prospect of the trucking industry's taking the initiative to address the OSA problem in any significant way is bleak, to say the least.

    Safety advocates have been sounding the alarm over the prevalence of sleep apnea in the transportation industry for years now. If the trucking industry were going to take action on their own accord, they would have done so by now. Yet, most trucking companies (with a few exceptions) have not done so. It might be up to federal regulators to give them a well-needed nudge in the right direction.

    What Is Being Done on OSA?

    Unfortunately, regulators have also been slow to act. They have discussed sleep apnea and asked for feedback from industry stakeholders, yet mandates have not been published and many of us are wondering exactly what kind of a stance they are going to take on OSA. If regulators are going to take the fight against OSA in the trucking industry seriously, sweeping changes in screening and treatment processes will be necessary. At this point, the jury is still out on just how strong the regulators' position will actually be on the issue.

    Risk Factors and Symptoms of Sleep ApneaIf you are concerned about the prevalence of sleep apnea, it is helpful to know the signs of OSA. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives us two lists that might be useful in identifying this condition.

    First, there are the risk factors for sleep apnea. Here are a few listed on the FMCSA website:

    • A family history of sleep apnea
    • A small upper airway
    • Being overweight
    • A recessed chin, a small jaw, or a large overbite
    • A large neck size (17 inches or more for men, 16 inches or more for women)
    • Smoking
    • Alcohol use
    • Age 40 or older.

    Second, these are the symptoms of sleep apnea listed by the FMCSA:

    • Loud snoring
    • Headaches and nausea in the morning
    • Gasping or choking while sleeping
    • Loss of sex drive
    • Excessive sleepiness during the day
    • Irritability and/or depression
    • Disrupted sleep
    • Problems with concentration and memory
    • Frequent urination during the nighttime.

    While we wait for the trucking industry and regulators to act on the issue of OSA, we can look out for signs and symptoms of sleep apnea both in ourselves and in others. Still, tackling this problem will take a coordinated, concerted effort by the powers that be in both the government and the trucking industry.

    McNeely Stephenson is a personal injury law firm in Indiana. You can contact McNeely Stephenson by calling 1-888-990-6215 or visiting their website.

    https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/driver-safety/sleep-apnea/driving-when-you-have-sleep-apnea

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/drowsy-driving-kills-6-400-americans-annually/

    http://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/13871-truck-drivers-with-untreated-sleep-apnea-have-higher-crash-rate-study

    https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/sites/fmcsa.dot.gov/files/docs/National%20Survey%20of%20Long-Haul%20Truck%20Driver%20Health%20and%20Injury.pdf