When is the best time to start focusing on the health and wellness of a truck driver?
According to many medical experts, including Michael Trufant, sleep therapy business unit manager at Aeroflow Healthcare Inc., the way to improve overall health and combat fatigued driving “starts long before a driver enters the cab of a truck.”
Trufant is referring to the effort to diagnose and treat obstructive sleep apnea. Research has indicated that more than 20 million Americans have some form of sleep apnea, and the majority are unaware.
A study earlier this decade by the University of Pennsylvania and sponsored by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the American Transportation Research Institute found that about 28% of commercial truck drivers suffer from mild to severe sleep apnea. Both Trufant and John Letter, president of Fusion Health, suggested that figure is likely a bit higher.
Drivers with sleep apnea are five times more likely to be involved in a crash, and the total cost of collisions related to apnea is estimated at $15.9 billion a year, according to research from the National Safety Council.
For those suffering from apnea, their tongue blocks their airwaves, causing the body to work harder to wake them up throughout the night to get proper oxygen.
In severe cases, a person could stop breathing for as long as 10 seconds, as many as 30 times an hour. That results in a poor night of sleep and daytime drowsiness that has been compared to operating with a blood alcohol level near the legal limit.
In August 2017, FMCSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) decided against moving forward on a possible regulation mandating the testing and treatment of sleep apnea for truck drivers and other transportation workers.
In March 2016 the agencies had published an advance notice of proposed rulemaking and sought feedback whether mandatory screening should be required for certain transportation workers.
“The agencies believe that current safety programs and FRA’s rulemaking addressing fatigue risk management are the appropriate avenues to address [obstructive sleep apnea],” according to a Federal Register posting announcing the decision not to proceed.
Trufant said he was disappointed with the government’s decision because it could send the wrong message to fleets. The reality is “that the cost of testing and treatment is dwarfed by one crash from a driver falling asleep due to one apnea incident,” he said.
He added that the cost of sleep apnea tests have come down significantly in recent years and generally could be done from home rather than a medical facility. Additionally, the cost of CPAP masks and other treatment devices have dropped as well.
“It is a no-brainer, not only for highway safety, but because an investment of no more than $1,500 can extend a person’s life by a decade,” Trufant said. “[Obstructive sleep apnea] doesn’t discriminate, but this can also help battle diabetes and other chronic diseases.”
Letter said that Fusion Health does not only test and treat sleep apnea, but provides a comprehensive sleep therapy program and a direct link to medical staff. That makes it more likely fleets will see drivers and other employees achieving positive results that last.
That has been the experience of Southeastern Freight Lines. The less-than-truckload carrier crafted a voluntary program with Fusion Health that allowed drivers to be tested and treated, regardless of their location.
“This is a real disease that needs treatment and can be treated,” said John Pryor, Southeastern’s vice president of human resources and safety.