Dazed And Confused: Sleep Apnea In The Transportation Industry

Dazed And Confused: Sleep Apnea In The Transportation Industry

This week brought grim news from Washington state: another passenger train derailment, apparently caused by speeding, which killed at least three people and injured many others. This crash joins a grim list:

1) A December 2013 New York commuter train derailment which killed four people;

2) A May 2015 Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia which killed eight people and injured about 200 others;

3) A September 2016 commuter train crash in New Jersey, where the train smashed into the terminal instead of stopping, killing one person and injuring more than 100; and

4) A January 2017 Long Island train derailment, again involving a train which failed to stop at the terminal, that injured more than 100 people.

Both the December 2013 crash and the January 2017 were blamed, at least in part, on a medical condition the engineers had called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition which causes a person’s airway to close during sleep. This wakes the person repeatedly throughout the night, causing poor sleep, which then results in dangerous drowsiness during the day.

Naturally, drowsy people make serious mistakes. The fall asleep at work, go into a trance-like waking stupor or fail to process information from their surroundings. This isn’t ideal in any line of work, but in the transportation world, it can be downright deadly.

It’s far too early to say whether the recent crash in Washington had anything to do with sleep apnea. However, it does follow a familiar and worrisome pattern: a train going much higher than the speed limit (about 80 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone in this case), then flying off the tracks and causing multiple deaths and injuries. The first question is pretty obvious: how could an alert engineer permit his train to roll at almost three times the speed limit approaching a curve and an overpass?

One of the most dangerous things about sleep apnea is that it’s not obvious. While awareness about sleep apnea is increasing, many people who have it still don’t realize it. They might assume their low energy and alertness is a result of other factors like advancing age. Sleep apnea can be treated, but people will never have the chance to get better if they don’t get evaluated in the first place.

Sleep apnea is more common in men than women. The primary risk factor is being overweight; other factors may include drinking alcohol, smoking, or having a small airway. It does become more common in people older than 40, but no age group is immune.

Railroad engineers aren’t the only ones at risk for sleep apnea. It is also a serious problem in the trucking industry. Needless to say, a person driving an 18-wheeler in a stupor can cause carnage on the highway. In a cruel twist, truck drivers are also particularly vulnerable to sleep apnea: because they work long hours where they sit still, they tend to have sedentary lifestyles, increasing their chances of being overweight and thus, susceptible.

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