Truck Drivers Sleep Apnea Treatments May Lower Crash Risk: Study

New research suggests that sleep apnea presents a much greater risk among truck drivers hauling dangerous goods than previously thought, but that those who get the sleep apnea treated may be able to greatly reduce their risk of being involved in a truck accident

Truck drivers who suffer from sleep apnea have a five-fold higher risk of being involved in an accident, according to a study published this month in the medical journal Sleep Medicine. However, sleep apnea treatments for truckers can reduce that risk down to the level of other drivers without the condition.

Sleep apnea causes a person’s airway to collapse during sleep, resulting in short periods of time where the individual stops breathing. This often occurs several times throughout the night, typically causing a person to gasp and wake. The condition can greatly affect the quality of sleep, causing fatigue, impaired focus, driving performance and reaction time.

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Obese individuals and men are both a higher risk of sleep apnea, and many truck drivers are in both categories. People with sleep apnea have a higher risk of suffering hypertension, stroke, heart disease and daytime sleepiness. However, a growing number of studies have suggested a link between sleep apnea and accidents, which raise particular concerns for truck drivers, whose daily job keeps them on the road for long periods of time, during which they must remain alert and focused.

Researchers evaluated a sample of 240 truck drivers of dangerous goods. The truck drivers transported flammable materials, like petroleum, diesel, propane and methane in Northern Italy. None of the truck drivers reported any symptoms before the study screening.

The drivers had clinical and physical evaluations for obstructive sleep apnea. They were evaluated based on a questionnaire and given a polysomnography test to confirm diagnosis.

A total of 139 truck drivers were suspected of having sleep apnea based on questionnaires, and 36% had confirmed diagnosis after the sleep study. Their risk of accident was assessed before diagnosis and then assessed again after two years of continuous positive airway pressure treatment (CPAP), where drivers used the machine for four or more hours at night at least five nights a week.

With CPAP treatment, a person wears a face mask that pumps in oxygen to keep a person’s airway open during sleep, and thus have a better, uninterrupted night of sleep and feel more refreshed.

Higher Risk of Truck Accidents

The Italian study concludes that drivers with severe sleep apnea have a five-fold increased risk of near miss accidents. After two years of CPAP treatment the rate of near miss accidents decreased and was comparable to that of drivers without sleep apnea.

Another recent study found that truck drivers with sleep apnea have a five-fold risk of being involved in a serious and preventable accident if their sleep apnea is not treated. The U.S. based study also indicated drivers who treated their disorder had a lower risk of accidents.

After two years of treatment, only two drivers in the Italian study reported sleep-related accidents. Researchers say the study indicates sleep apnea screening, treatment and managing the condition should be mandatory for truck drivers to help increase road safety and lower accident risk.

In the U.S., commercial truck drivers must undergo medical testing every two years, but they are not mandated to undergo sleep apnea screening by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Recently the Department of Transportation proposed mandatory sleep apnea testing for all government transportation operators, including vehicle operators and rail workers. The proposed ruling was also urged by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to adopt the requirement. The NTSB estimates more than 22 million men and women in the U.S. may suffer from undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea.

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