Criticism piles up for decision to drop sleep testing

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Friday, August 25, 2017

YARMOUTH, Maine – A regulation requiring sleep apnea testing for transportation workers recently fell victim to the Trump administration’s vow to slash federal regulations, but industry stakeholders say it’s not over yet.

The Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said earlier this month that they would scrap a regulation to require testing for commercial drivers and rail workers.

“The idea of a rule is maybe out for now, but it’s not over,” said Steven Garrish, senior vice president, business development and new ventures for SleepSafe Drivers, a Laguna Nigel, Calif.-based sleep management provider. “I think cooler heads will prevail.”

A group of Democratic senators, including Cory Booker, D-N.J., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sent a strongly worded letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation this month questioning the FMCSA and FRA’sdecision.

New York and New Jersey have seen a handful of deadly rail crashes attributed to engineers suffering from sleep apnea, including a 2016 crash in Hoboken that killed one woman and injured more than 100 others.

“These crashes are continuing to happen,” said Michael Trufant, industrial manager for Asheville, N.C.-based Aeroflow Healthcare, a sleep provider. “Sen. Schumer said, how many do you need to have happen before you move?”

The FMCSA and FRA’s decision is quite the reversal: The FMCSA has been working on guidelines for testing and treating commercial drivers for sleep apnea for nearly a decade and it held public comment sessions on whether to require testing in 2016.

While there has been pushback in the past to requiring testing, the pendulum has swung the other way, says Trufant.

“Eight or 10 years ago, crashes were (blamed) on operator error,” he said. “The data is really showing that OSA is to some degree a real factor in all of this. Some trucking companies are leaning in; they are being very proactive.”

Whether required testing is finally realized or not, the increased awareness of sleep disorders means doctors are increasingly referring drivers for testing, says Garrish.

“I think it will still be business as usual,” he said. “What I think may happen is there will be a call for more and more groups, both within and outside the government, to let the proposal go through because its safety related. It hits home. Nobody wants to be around a fatigued operator.”