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Wakeup call for sleep apnea

Sept. 6, 2007
Sleep apnea is a much more serious problem for trucking and the transportation sector as a whole than previously thought-- galvanizing experts to call for wider screening of truck

Sleep apnea is a much more serious problem for trucking and the transportation sector as a whole than previously thought-- galvanizing experts to call for wider screening of truck drivers and other transport workers.

In a recent study published in Sleep Diagnosis and Therapy this past May, the authors found that as many as 50% of transportation workers studied had undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a potentially life-threatening breathing-related sleep disorder that often goes undiagnosed and untreated.

The research suggests the high prevalence of obstructive sleep apnea – combined with at commercial driver population that’s older and heavier in terms of body weight – requires more steps be taken to preserve the safety of the U.S. motoring public, said Dr. Philip Westbrook, past-president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and chief medical officer of Advanced Brain Monitoring (ABM).

“There is more at stake then just the truck driver's license,” he said. “The simple truth is OSA is a relatively easy and inexpensive disease to diagnose and effectively treat. Immediate cost savings are recognized a result of improved driver health, more than enough to cover the cost for diagnosis and treatment within six months. Doing nothing is the only inappropriate action given our knowledge of how many undiagnosed OSA drivers are on the road and the increased accident risk they pose.”

In recent years, sedentary lifestyle and increased obesity in this workforce has contributed to this growing epidemic of OSA, which can lead to chronic drowsiness and fatigue fro sufferers, said Donald Carper, a professor emeritus in the college of business at California State University in Sacramento and co-author of the recent OSA study

“Loud snoring during sleep combined with daytime drowsiness is an indicator of those who may have undiagnosed OSA,” added Westbrook. “Research suggests that anyone suffering from hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, or depression should have a sleep study to determine if they have undiagnosed OSA.”

Carper noted there are major legal ramifications as well, suggesting recent developments have changed the potential legal landscape for those involved in the transportation industry:

  • Evidence indicates that commercial drivers suffer from a disproportionately higher prevalence of OSA than is currently being diagnosed or recognized.
  • A recent joint task force, including representatives from the American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the National Sleep Foundation made recommendations that placed drivers, employers and physicians on notice about this problem and proposed specific steps that should be taken to reduce preventable accidents attributed to OSA.
  • Schneider National recently reported that treating drivers for OSA provides health care savings that more than covers the cost of implementing a program. Inexpensive, accurate and convenient methods to diagnose OSA are now available, with treatment options existing that can reduce the debilitating symptoms associated with OSA.
  • Existing case law frames frame an argument for punitive damages for employers and physicians and criminal convictions for employees if OSA problems are ignored or hidden and result in truck collisions causing death or other serious harm.

“Parties in the trucking industry have not paid sufficient attention to the risk of undiagnosed OSA,” said Carper. “Drivers, their employers and clinicians all have potential legal exposure resulting from undiagnosed OSA. The overall awareness of OSA, its seriousness and attendant risks has reached the point that ignoring this problem will undoubtedly carry a high price in the future.”

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