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Nation & World

Industry weighs sleep apnea as a safety issue for drivers

Nebraska trucker Chris Peters sits with his pup, Oscar at Stockmen’s Truck Stop in South St. Paul, Minnesota. Trucking companies who hire drivers like Peters are looking at the risks drivers face from sleep apnea.
Nebraska trucker Chris Peters sits with his pup, Oscar at Stockmen’s Truck Stop in South St. Paul, Minnesota. Trucking companies who hire drivers like Peters are looking at the risks drivers face from sleep apnea.

Chris Peters sat in his rig at Stockmen’s Truck Stop in South St. Paul, Minnesota, last week, contemplating his next truckload and seeking cool refuge from Minnesota’s stifling heat.

All around, big trucks lined up in neat formation as drivers settled in their cabs to get some much-needed rest.

Peters, a Nebraska-based professional truck driver for nearly 15 years, is an anomaly: He sleeps like a baby. “I could take a nap right now,” he said.

But many other drivers in the notoriously high-stress industry aren’t so lucky. Research from the University of Minnesota, Morris suggests that the sleep disorder known as obstructive sleep apnea is a serious safety problem – not only for the nation’s truck drivers, but for the motorists who share the road with them. That extensive body of research found drivers who did not treat the sleep disorder had a preventable crash risk five times higher than those who sought treatment.

Highly publicized crashes in recent years involving drowsy truck drivers and railroad engineers have highlighted the importance of proper rest in the hard-charging industry. A Hibbing, Minnesota truck driver with a long history of sleep apnea was jailed last year after he “blacked out” behind the wheel, killing a 31-year-old man in 2015, according to media reports.

“Standard tractor-trailers weigh about 80,000 pounds fully loaded,” said Stephen Burks, an economics professor who leads the Truckers and Turnover Project at Morris, and a former truck driver himself.

“If a tractor-trailer collides with a car, the car generally loses.”

Although the Obama administration supported mandatory screening of truck drivers for sleep apnea, President Donald Trump reversed course, part of his broader strategy of mitigating government regulations.

The issue has surfaced in congressional hearings as recently as this spring, and mandatory testing still has champions in government, although it’s unclear whether they have any traction.

More screening?

Despite the lack of a federal mandate calling for truck drivers to be screened for sleep apnea, the U.S. Department of Transportation does require a medical examination in order to hold a commercial driver’s license. It’s up to the doctor performing the exam to determine whether the driver needs sleep apnea testing.

How pervasive is the problem? Among the 1.87 million U.S. nonfarm commercial drivers estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 17% to 28% are expected to have at least mild obstructive sleep apnea based on studies of commercial drivers, Burks said.

Obstructive sleep apnea involves a pause in breathing during sleep lasting at least 10 seconds. Left untreated, the disorder may lead to all sorts of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, mood and memory lapses and drowsy driving, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Chicago-based truck driver Bob Stanton was diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2002 after experiencing chest pains while unloading cargo at a Sears store. After he “went through a lot of administrative malarkey,” he was fitted with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask that sends a constant flow of air pressure to the throat during sleep, ensuring it stays open.

The mask changed his life, he said. “It was like night and day.”

Stanton, who has since launched a patient support group called Truckers For A Cause, said the ease of diagnosis and treatment for truckers with sleep apnea has improved greatly over the past 15 years. “It’s gone from about a month off from work to no time lost now,” he said, noting the stigma has lessened, as well.

Green Bay, Wis.-based trucking firm Schneider, which worked with Burks on his research, screens all new drivers for sleep apnea and pays for treatment, if necessary. Schneider began screening in 2006, becoming the first large-scale employer to do so.

“Our goal is to make sure drivers come home, and we want to make sure the motoring public is safer, as well,” said Tom DiSalvi, Schneider’s vice president of driver training and compliance. Schneider employs about 15,000 drivers.

But not all trucking firms can afford to test and treat drivers, and research on the topic of sleep apnea is controversial.

“Safety is paramount in our business so we’d say yes to the question of screening,” said John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association. “But then it gets into how.”

Some in the industry question the veracity of the sleep apnea research. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association opposes mandatory screening and says its own research shows no link between drivers with sleep apnea and commercial motor vehicle crashes.

“There hasn’t been any real research that links the two,” said Andrew King, a research analyst with the Missouri group’s foundation. Furthermore, “we have a problem with putting in place mandates that are more about benefiting someone’s pocketbook rather than actually improving highway safety,” added Norita Taylor, the association’s spokeswoman.

The potential cost to the industry for testing and treatment of drivers with sleep apnea is $740 million to $12.8 billion, according to the independent drivers’ association. Many employers don’t cover the costs of screening or treatment, leaving drivers to pick up the tab.

Kevin Boyette, a Florida-based long-haul truck driver, isn’t a fan of new regulations. “I feel that we’re being singled out, it’s like what else can you do to disqualify me from driving a truck?” he said while cleaning out his cab at Stockmen’s last week.

The wiry Boyette says he stays in shape by loading and unloading his trailer and keeping an eye on his diet.

“I’m not a medical expert, but you’re sedentary on this job, you can gain weight,” he said. “You can come up with a hundred different ways to say there’s a problem, but is it a problem?”

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©2019 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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