Sleep apnea is a growing concern in the trucking industry, as untreated sleep apnea symptoms can significantly impact a driver's performance and safety on the road. Often, people equate impaired driving with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. However, another form of impaired driving, equally hazardous and unrelated to the consumption of illicit substances, exists. Known as drowsy driving, this form of impairment poses a distinct threat to commercial motor vehicle (CMV) operators, their companies, and others sharing the road.
Drowsy driving can significantly impact a driver's ability to safely operate a vehicle. Even though no illegal substances are involved, the effects can be similar to those experienced by intoxicated drivers. The National Safety Council (NSC) indicates that the physical effects of staying awake for over 20 consecutive hours are akin to being legally intoxicated, while losing just two hours of sleep can have effects comparable to consuming three alcoholic beverages. Consequently, fatigued drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a car accident.
Sleep Apnea and DOT Drivers
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) enforces regulations to restrict the number of hours a commercial driver can operate a vehicle to minimize the risk and adverse effects of drowsy driving. However, driver fatigue may not solely result from long working hours; it could also stem from insufficient sleep, potentially indicating a larger issue, such as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by a person's breathing repeatedly stopping and restarting during sleep, with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) being the most common form. These breathing interruptions can last from a few seconds to several minutes and occur up to 30 times per hour, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association.
Consequently, individuals with OSA may find it challenging to maintain alertness and function at an optimal or necessary level while awake. For a commercial driver with OSA, this could translate to operating an 80,000-pound semi-truck (with a loaded trailer) across vast distances for extended periods while battling drowsiness and fatigue. Sleepiness can impair a truck driver's ability to perform essential skills, such as eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity. Although not every truck driver exhibiting sleep apnea symptoms will face these performance challenges, the available data underscores the importance of medical examiners screening truck drivers for health conditions like OSA that can compromise their ability to safely operate commercial vehicles.
Signs and Risk Factors
Sleep apnea is a disorder characterized by brief interruptions in breathing during sleep. It affects approximately 25 million Americans, with many more undiagnosed cases. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 1 in 5 truck drivers suffers from mild to severe sleep apnea. Common signs of sleep apnea include:
- Gasping for air during sleep
- Daytime sleepiness
- Difficulty concentrating.
Other symptoms may include morning headaches, irritability, mood changes, and a dry mouth or sore throat upon awakening.
Risk factors for sleep apnea include:
- family history
- Alcohol use
Understanding these risk factors is crucial for identifying individuals at risk of sleep apnea. Early identification and intervention can prevent further health complications, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline, often associated with untreated sleep apnea.
DOT Regulations and DOT Physicals
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has not established specific regulations for diagnosing and treating sleep apnea in commercial drivers. However, the FMCSA does require that medical examiners consider a driver's risk factors for sleep apnea during DOT physicals. DOT physicals require drivers to complete a health questionnaire that is evaluated by a physician. A physical examination is also performed to determine the driver's complete health history. An examiner will consider several risk factors associated with OSA during the exam and look for any abnormalities with breathing or respiratory issues that may be associated with sleep apnea. Oftentimes, they use a scoring system called a Mallampati score, which assesses the size of the tongue and the esophageal airway. The less visible the structures, the higher the score will be from 1-4, with a score of 3-4 associated with sleep apnea. As a final step, a medical examiner may recommend sleep apnea testing, either to rule out the condition or to diagnose it, as well as develop a treatment plan to help the driver manage the sleep disorder for personal health benefits as well as renewing his or her certificate of recertification.
Diagnosis and CDL Status
Despite common misconceptions, a sleep apnea diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean a driver will lose their job, which is often why many will downplay their signs and/or symptoms during a DOT physical exam. Treatment for sleep apnea varies based on the severity of the condition, but most cases can be effectively treated. If a driver is diagnosed with sleep apnea, the medical examiner can recommend conditional certification for 90 days on the condition that they receive a sleep evaluation and treatment plan from a sleep specialist. Therefore, it is possible for CMV drivers to become medically qualified to drive again by seeking treatment and following a prescribed treatment plan.
Compliance and Safety
Ensuring compliance with sleep apnea testing and treatment is vital for maintaining safety on the roads. Trucking companies can significantly promote compliance by implementing several measures to address sleep apnea and its consequences among drivers.
- Education and Awareness: Trucking companies should educate drivers about the risks of untreated sleep apnea, its symptoms, and the potential dangers it poses to themselves and others on the road. Informative sessions, workshops, and distribution of educational materials can help drivers better understand the importance of addressing sleep apnea.
- Encouraging Self-Reporting: Creating a supportive environment where drivers feel comfortable discussing their concerns about sleep apnea or other sleep disorders can encourage them to seek help if they suspect they have the disorder. Open communication and a non-punitive approach can foster trust and promote proactive self-reporting among drivers.
- Access to Testing and Treatment: Companies can facilitate access to sleep apnea testing and treatment options for their drivers. This may include arranging on-site testing, partnering with sleep clinics, or providing resources and financial assistance for drivers to seek testing and treatment independently.
- Regular Monitoring: Regular monitoring of drivers diagnosed with sleep apnea and undergoing treatment is essential to ensure they continue to manage their condition effectively. This can involve periodic follow-ups with healthcare providers, reviewing treatment adherence, and monitoring for any changes in the driver's symptoms or overall health.
- Wellness Programs: Trucking companies can promote overall health and well-being among drivers by implementing wellness programs that address lifestyle factors that contribute to sleep apnea, such as weight management, exercise, and stress reduction. Such programs can help prevent sleep apnea and improve drivers' overall health and well-being.
By taking these steps, trucking companies can play a vital role in promoting compliance with sleep apnea testing and treatment, ultimately contributing to safer roads for everyone.
How Can DISA Help?
DISA offers comprehensive occupational health services, such as sleep apnea testing, to ensure employers are maintaining fleet and driver safety. Our professionals can help you build a culture of safety in the workplace by creating a compliance program that goes beyond meeting the DOT regulations. Sleep apnea testing for truck drivers is an essential step in improving safety on the roads. By understanding the signs and risk factors of sleep apnea, complying with DOT regulations, and emphasizing the value of testing, trucking companies, and drivers can work together to reduce the risk of accidents and promote overall health and well-being.
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About DISA Global Solutions
Founded in 1986, DISA is the industry-leading provider of employee screening and compliance services. Headquartered in Houston, with more than 35 offices throughout the U.S. and Canada, DISA’s comprehensive scope of services includes drug and alcohol testing, background screening, occupational health, and transportation compliance. DISA assists employers in making informed staffing decisions while building a culture of safety in their workplace.