Sleep apnea returns to spotlight in wake of deadly NJ Transit crash
Engineers suffering from sleep apnea must have the fatigue-inducing disorder under control before they will be allowed to operate New Jersey Transit trains like the one that slammed into a station in September, killing a woman and injuring more than 100 people.
NJ Transit disclosed the policy change to The Associated Press on Monday as federal regulators prepared a safety bulletin that will urge all railroads to screen for sleep apnea. The engineer in the Sept. 29 crash in Hoboken was later found to have the condition.
New Jersey Transit said Monday it previously allowed engineers with sleep apnea to keep working as long as they were being treated. It changed the policy in early October, banning engineers with the disorder from operating trains until they get medical certification that the condition has been corrected or controlled, spokeswoman Jennifer Nelson said.
“If an employee shows any indication of potential fatigue symptoms they are declared not fit for duty,” Nelson said.
Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg told The Associated Press this week’s safety advisory will urge railroads to screen and treat sleep apnea and call on them to install inward-facing cameras in train cabs to record engineers’ actions and aid investigations.
The FRA first recommended sleep apnea testing in 2004, suggesting that railroads prohibit diagnosed employees from performing safety-sensitive tasks, such as operating a train, until the condition responds to treatment.
Metro-North, the suburban New York City railroad that had a deadly sleep apnea-related crash three years ago, allows its engineers to operate trains as long as they’re undergoing treatment, spokesman Aaron Donovan said. Metro-North’s screening program found that one in nine of its engineers suffers from sleep apnea.
Metro-North started testing for sleep apnea after the December 2013 crash in the Bronx, in which a train that originated in Poughkeepsie sped into a 30-mph curve at 82 mph and derailed, killing four people. The engineer, Germantown resident William Rockefeller, had fallen asleep at the controls.
NJ Transit has screened engineers and other employees in safety sensitive positions for sleep apnea since 2005. NJ Transit would not say if the engineer in the Sept. 29 crash, Thomas Gallagher, was screened, citing medical
privacy and the ongoing investigation.
Gallagher’s lawyer, Jack Arsenault, said NJ Transit was informed on Oct. 7 that a doctor concluded Gallagher was likely suffering from sleep apnea. Gallagher underwent a sleep study that confirmed the diagnosis, Arsenault said, and the results were sent to federal investigators on Oct. 31.
Gallagher had passed a physical in July and was cleared for duty, Arsenault said. The engineer told investigators he felt fully rested when he reported to work that day
of the crash.
Sleep apnea sufferers are repeatedly awakened and robbed of rest as their airway closes and their breathing stops, leading to dangerous daytime drowsiness. Treatments include wearing a pressurized breathing mask, oral appliances or nasal strips to force the airway open while sleeping. Some severe cases require surgery.
Gallagher told investigators he had no memory of the crash and only remembered waking up on the floor of the engineer’s cab after his train slammed into a bumping post at double the 10 mph speed limit. Rockefeller, likewise, said he had no memory of the MetroNorth crash.