Personal Injury

Task force says sleep apnea is serious threat to truck drivers

A task force of medical professionals is calling for better screening procedures for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) among drivers of commercial trucks and busses. The sleep disorder, which is characterized by frequent pauses in breathing during sleep, can cause extreme drowsiness and fatigue in waking hours and is known to be prevalent among commercial drivers.

In 2002, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the American Trucking Associations sponsored a study that found nearly one in three commercial truck drivers suffered from mild to severe OSA. In addition to sleeplessness and fatigue, the condition can cause acid reflux and other health problems. Combined with heart trouble, OSA can be life threatening.

In the September issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the OSA task force recommends a more comprehensive screening and evaluation process and modified procedures for follow-up, recertification, and return to work following treatment. Physicians on the task force represented the American College of Chest Physicians, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and the National Sleep Foundation.

“Sleepiness and inattention contribute to a significant number of CMV crashes each year, and OSA has been shown to significantly increase a driver’s risk of driving drowsy,” said Dr. Nancy Collop of the ACCP Sleep Institute. “Yet, current CMV screening and treatment procedures for OSA are ambiguous and not reflective of the latest advancements in the diagnosis and management of OSA.”

Conflicting approaches to screening have left too many drivers undiagnosed, which puts them and the public at risk, Collop said.

Current federal guidelines for diagnosis and treatment of OSA in commercial motor vehicle drivers are based on 1991 report that states drivers must have “no established medical history or clinical diagnosis of respiratory dysfunction likely to interfere with the ability to control and drive a commercial motor vehicle.”

“Sleep apnea is a highly treatable disorder,” said Dr. Barbara Phillips of the National Sleep Foundation said in the report. “The new return-to-work standards we suggest are more reflective of current clinical knowledge related to the treatment of sleep apnea.”

OSA is widely treated these days with a mask worn during sleep, which assists breathing with a steady flow of air. The condition is also treated for some with surgery or medication.

The FMCSA says that while there is no set time frame in dealing with the task force’s recommendations, the agency is giving the issue priority on its agenda.