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Bad Wrecks Put Regulatory Spotlight on Sleep Apnea

WASHINGTON (CN) - As part of a transportation-security overhaul, federal regulators have requested data on safety workers in the rail and highway industries who suffer from sleep apnea.

Published Friday in the Federal Register, the notice comes after the National Transportation Safety Board found that drivers and engineers behind various fatal accidents over the years have suffered from the disorder.

A common problem for middle-age and older individuals, as well as those who are overweight, obstructive sleep apnea or OSA causes people to repeatedly stop and start breathing while they sleep.

Because disrupted breathing patterns make sleep less restful, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration say they plan to treat OSA as "a critical safety issue that can affect operations in all modes of travel in the transportation industry."

"Undiagnosed or inadequately treated moderate to severe OSA can cause unintended sleep episodes and resulting deficits in attention, concentration, situational awareness and memory, thus reducing the capacity to safely respond to hazards when performing safety sensitive duties," the agencies said in their notice of proposed rulemaking.

Citing various accidents by transportation workers over the years where the driver fell asleep at the wheel, the 14-page notice first mentions a July 26, 2000, crash where a tractor-trailer traveling along Interstate 40 near Jackson, Tenn., hit a state-patrol car, killing the trooper inside, and then hit a Chevy Blazer, seriously injuring the driver.

"The tractor-trailer driver was 5-feet, 11-inches tall, weighed 358 pounds and had been diagnosed with and undergone surgery for OSA, but had not indicated either the diagnosis or the surgery on examinations for medical certification," regulators found.

The NTSB's investigation determined that the driver's OSA and hypothyroidism predisposed him to impairment or "incapacitation," including falling asleep at the wheel.

NTSB investigators also found multiple risk factors for OSA in the medical records of a pair of BNSF Railway crewmembers who died when their coal train derailed outside Red Oak, Iowa, on April 17, 2011.

After finding that the crewmembers had fallen asleep because their irregular work schedules and their medical conditions made them overtired, the NTSB recommended that the rail authority begin screening their workers for sleep apnea and other disorders.

Christine Hydock with the FMCSA and Bernard Arseneau with the FRA did not return phone calls seeking comment on the March 10 notice of proposed rulemaking.

Wanting to study the costs and benefits of requiring OSA treatment, the agencies seek "data and information concerning the prevalence of moderate-to-severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) among individuals occupying safety sensitive positions in highway and rail transportation, and on its potential consequences for the safety of rail and highway transportation."

The notice directs those with prospective comments to answer a list of 20 questions provided within the notice of proposed rulemaking, which also provides instructions on how to submit answers and comments.

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