Truckers and sleep apnea: Pending law easy to localize

by October 3, 2013

When you think about it, pretty much everything in our homes or offices was on a truck at some point, so it always surprises me that a trucking beat isn’t a greater part of transportation coverage by most business desks.

About 1.6 million Americans make a livings as a heavy- or tractor-trailer truck operator, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and here’s an industry infographic from UShip, via Business Insider, that offers many more fascinating factoids from this $650 billion industry that represents 5 percent of the U.S Gross Domestic Product.

Not sure about their sleeping, but East Coast Truckers charity convoy takes a break to raise funds for children. Photos: Darren J. Glanville

But a pending bill in Congress that bridges both health care and the trucking industry is a timely opportunity to take a look at some issues that truck drivers face.   Another reason to do it soon: The double whammy of winter driving season coming up, and the holidays-driven hike in freight volumes, may put more stress on the driver force.

The sleep apnea law, passed by the House on Sept. 26, is H.R. 3095; here’s a link to the entire bill on GovTrack.  As reports, the bill applies to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and requires “that any sleep- apnea policy prepared by FMCSA take into account the resulting costs to the trucking industry and that it consider the best screening, testing, and treatment methods available.”

As the article indicates, sleep apnea’s effect on driver ability and safety has been on federal regulators’ radar screens for several years, with the National Transportation Safety Board Advocating that drivers and pilots of all modes of transportation be screened.  As you can imagine, fleet operators, drivers and owner-operators worry that diagnoses could be used to force drivers off the road and many contend there is no strong correlation between sleep apnea and safety behind the wheel.

It’s a fascinating conundrum, particularly as trucking takes such a toll on drivers’ bodies, with long, sedentary hours and roadside meals at fast food and truck stop outlets putting them at risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity, stress and other conditions that are thought to be related to sleep disorders.   Here’s a New York Times piece about trucker obesity, for example.  And a recent study in Europe found that professional drivers may downplay sleep problems to avoid losing their licenses.

You can check in with area trucking firms and owner-operators about their current rules and policies regarding driver health, including sleep disorders, and for their reaction to H.R.  3095, which needs Senate approval to pass.   There are also myriad spin-off stories that relate to trucker well-being, from truck-stop fitness centers and healthier food options to pet-friendly trucking companies that let drivers ease the loneliness with animal companions to the latest in design and amenities of the “sleeper cabs”that many drivers must use to get some shut-eye along the roadside.

Many trucking publications like Overdrive and The Trucker are good resources.  I had not been familiar with UShip, which is an online load marketplace, but in addition to the infographic mentioned above, they offer the “Ship Happens” blog on topics ranging from trade shows to “What big mistakes did Walter White make?  Shipping lessons from Breaking Bad.”  Might be an interesting resource for state-specific freight statistics if you need them.