Sleep Deprivation Poses Threat to Many Unwary Truck Drivers

June 1, 2001
SAFETY managers know the threat fatigue presents to drivers, but many may not be aware of a sleep deprivation syndrome that afflicts 12% of employees

SAFETY managers know the threat fatigue presents to drivers, but many may not be aware of a sleep deprivation syndrome that afflicts 12% of employees holding a commercial driver license — obstructive sleep apnea.

A 350% increase in vehicle crashes is seen in drivers with sleep apnea, as compared with the rest of the population, according to information presented by Bob Bonich, safety director of Dana Suttles Truck Leasing, Demopolis, Alabama, and Stuart Lowenthal of Health Screenings Inc, Louisville, Kentucky. The men discussed the subject at the National Tank Truck Carriers Safety Council meeting.

Bonich knows about the condition first hand. “I denied I had it for years,” he said. “I would stop breathing while I was sleeping.”

Sleep apnea causes intermittent interrupted sleep because the airway in the throat collapses. The sleeper awakens gasping for air throughout the night and suffers from fatigue during the day. Getting only four hours of sleep can cause a marked decrease in thinking ability, alertness, and task performance. Even with six hours of sleep, the performance decreases moderately. With eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, performance improves significantly.

Although Bonich's family was concerned about him, particularly by his loud snoring and halted breathing during sleep, he continued to ignore the symptoms. Finally, he was diagnosed and prescribed a constant-air-pressure machine to prevent the airway collapse. Now with the help of the appliance, he sleeps like a baby, reaping the benefit of a good night's sleep. Because of his experience, Bonich urged managers to look for symptoms in their drivers, noting that they, too, may deny their conditions.

Lowenthal listed some of the symptoms associated with the condition:

  • Overweight men with a neck size of 16½ or larger.
  • Family reports of frequent loud snoring, restless sleep, and breathing interruptions at varying intervals during sleep.
  • Falling asleep while reading or watching TV, riding in a car for short distances, sitting in church, and/or sitting quietly.
  • High blood pressure or heart problems.
  • Increased irritability or depression.
  • Constant tiredness and falling asleep during the day.

“Two or three instances of these conditions should put you on guard,” said Lowenthal. “Sleepiness resulting from untreated sleep disorders is identified as the cause of a growing number of work injuries and death.”

If safety managers suspect that a driver suffers from sleep apnea, they should require further tests. A questionnaire can be used by drivers and their sleeping partners to gather further information that may indicate they suffer from the condition. A home overnight monitor is available that will track sleep rhythm. Sleep clinics should be used for positive diagnosis.

“The condition is three times more common in the trucking industry than the general population,” Lowenthal said. “Getting sleep is not an option for drivers.”

He said statistics indicate that when drivers fall asleep at the wheel, the six most common things that occur are running off the road to the right (40.3%); running off the road to the left (37.8%); hitting parked vehicle (2.3%); and hitting fixed object (1.4%).

Diagnosing and treating a driver with sleep apnea is critical to preserving safety, but the condition is not the only health issue related to drivers. Good health in general pays off not only for the driver, but for the company. Fewer medical claims occur and drivers have little lost job time.

To encourage good health, companies should establish programs for employees that include instruction on diet, smoking, exercise, stress, and weight. “If you can modify some of these risks, you can save money and improve the lives of your employees,” said Lowenthal.