It is interesting to see what some of my fellow trucking safety professionals are discussing. There is currently an online discussion group talking about whether obstructed sleep apnea (OSA) testing should be made mandatory. As you might guess, the opinions are wide and varied. I have seen some statistics stating that a range from 15% to over 30% of professional truck drivers are afflicted with some form of sleep apnea. Even at 15%, that means there are millions of sleepy truck drivers operating commercial units every day. Some of my colleagues believe we should be tested for it. Of course, others believe that more government intervention, more rules and more regulations are not what the trucking industry needs. And here I am, right in the middle.
Because sleep apnea affects men more than women and because it happens most often to men who are older than 44 years of age, it is a disease that really targets the trucking industry. I say targets because of course, our industry is mostly male and it has an ever aging population. The average age in trucking is older than most industries. These statistics, along with the way our truck drivers are required to work, such as evening and overnight work, ever-changing bedtimes and the need sometimes to work even when tired also creates sleep apnea.
So what is sleep apnea? It is when your body stops breathing for 10 seconds or longer during your sleep. Everyone has some apnea events while they sleep. 5 to 7 apnea events in an hour are normal. I suffer from sleep apnea and I can tell you that when I was tested I had what is referred to as ‘moderate’ sleep apnea. I had 37 apnea events per hour. That means approximately every two minutes I would stop breathing for 10 seconds or longer. My body’s reaction to this while I’m asleep is to say, ‘start breathing!’ These apnea events prevent me from getting the deep restful sleep that my body requires. As soon as I began using a CPAP machine my apnea events dropped to 2 to 3 per hour. That is well within the normal range. As a result of treatment, I feel much better and have my energy back.
Getting back on topic, do I think we should have mandatory sleep apnea testing? NO. I do believe that we need some form of ‘screening’ for our drivers. Screening would not be testing. Screening could simply be a questionnaire or other process and the results of the questionnaire/process would then indicate whether the driver may have a sleeping disorder. If this was the case, it would tell the safety professional to recommend to the driver that further testing is required by a medical person, someone who is a professional in the topic of OSA.
Because of the high rate of sleep apnea in our industry, I do believe that we need to take some form of action to address the risk. And it is a large risk. Sleep apnea affects many more drivers than drug and alcohol abuse and yet, the results are often similar. If a driver has sleep apnea, he or she may effectively be impaired. Their reaction time and judgment may not be as sound as it would normally be and in fact, it is similar to their reaction time if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
A year ago the United States government was seriously considering mandating sleep apnea testing. This seems to have been moved to the back burner as I don’t see anything in the news about it recently. This means that we, the trucking industry need to address this concern. I do believe it is a major risk to our industry that affects many drivers. If the industry were to step forth and introduce either screening or testing we could make a positive impact on both driver’s health and perhaps safety on the roads. After all, isn’t that what we safety professionals are supposed to do? Are we not to look after our drivers and work to improve their health? If we do, the results will be safer roads!