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Obesity and sleep apnea a double threat for trucking safety

Obesity is a big risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea, which is a huge risk for drowsy drivers causing crashes.

And long days of sedentary, solitary work, legally driving up to 11 hours in a 14 hour work day, with no easy access to either healthy food or a place to safely exercise, promotes obesity.

It is no wonder then that long haul truck drivers often suffer from both obesity and obstructive sleep apnea.

MSNBC reported this week that a Harvard sleep scientist, Dr. Stefanos N. Kales, has published an article in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, calling for mandatory sleep apnea screening of commercial truck drivers.

“Screenings of truck drivers will be ineffective unless they are federally mandated or required by employers,” said Kales, whose study included more than 450 commercial drivers working for more than 50 firms.

Sleep apnea is a disorder that causes a person’s airways to collapse during sleep, cutting off breathing dozens – or even hundreds – of times a night. Because sufferers wake over and over, they’re never fully rested and their bodies are chronically deprived of oxygen. That can cause health problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes and symptoms that include daytime sleepiness and a tendency to nod off during normal activities.

“It can be a microsleep for few seconds,” said Kales. “That can be enough to throw a truck off the road.” The results can be devastating.

According to Kales, up to 20 percent of truck crashes are caused by drivers who fall asleep, and up to 28 percent of commercial drivers have sleep apnea. That works out to as many as 3.9 million of the roughly 14 million commercial drivers. The 28 percent rate among truckers compares poorly with about 4 percent of men aged 30 to 60 in the general population.

“A driver is impaired by fatigue long before he falls asleep,” said Jeff Burns, a lawyer representing the Truck Safety Coalition, a safety advocacy group.

Trucking industry groups routinely reject concerns about obesity and sleep apnea.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Review Board has recommended mandatory sleep apnea screening for commercial truck drivers, but the FMCSA does not appear to have the issue on its agenda for action in the near future.

Ken Shigley is an interstate trucking trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, and has been listed as a “Super Lawyer” (Atlanta Magazine), among the “Legal Elite” (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. He served as chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Litigation Institute, is on the National Advisory Board for the Association of Interstate Trucking Lawyers of America, and is a frequent speaker at continuing legal education programs for the Interstate Trucking Litigation Group of the American Association for Justice. Mr. Shigley has extensive experience representing parties in trucking and bus accidents, products liability, catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, spinal cord injury, brain injury and burn injury cases. Currently he is Secretary of the 40,000 member State Bar of Georgia.This post is subject to our ethical disclaimer.

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