Sleep-ap­nea plans ditched

U.S. agen­cies scrap bid to re­quire test­ing of truck­ers, rail en­gi­neers.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE -

MICHAEL BALSAMO AND MICHAEL R. SISAK

U.S. of­fi­cials are aban­don­ing plans to re­quire sleep ap­nea screen­ing for truck drivers and train en­gi­neers, a de­ci­sion that safety ex­perts say puts mil­lions of lives at risk.

The Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Fed­eral Mo­tor Car­rier Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion said late last week that they are no longer pur­su­ing the reg­u­la­tion that would re­quire test­ing for the fa­tiguein­duc­ing dis­or­der that’s been blamed for deadly rail crashes in New York City and New Jersey, and sev­eral high­way crashes.

The agen­cies ar­gue that it should be up to rail­roads and truck­ing com­pa­nies to de­cide whether to test em­ploy­ees. One rail­road that does test, Metro-North in the New York City sub­urbs, found that 11.6 per­cent of its en­gi­neers have sleep ap­nea.

The de­ci­sion to kill the sleep ap­nea reg­u­la­tion is the lat­est step in Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign to dras­ti­cally re­duce the num­ber of fed­eral reg­u­la­tions. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has with­drawn or de­layed hun­dreds of pro­posed reg­u­la­tions since he took of­fice in Jan­uary — moves the Repub­li­can pres­i­dent has said will bol­ster eco­nomic growth.

Late last year, the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued a safety ad­vi­sory that was meant as a stop­gap mea­sure urg­ing rail­roads to be­gin sleep ap­nea test­ing while the rules made their way through the reg­u­la­tory process. Without a reg­u­la­tion man­dat­ing test­ing,

● which would have needed ap­proval from Congress, reg­u­la­tors couldn’t cite truck­ing com­pa­nies or rail­roads if a truck or train crashed be­cause the op­er­a­tor fell asleep at the helm.

Sleep ap­nea is es­pe­cially trou­bling for the trans­porta­tion in­dus­try be­cause 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.

“It’s very hard to ar­gue that peo­ple aren’t be­ing put at risk,” said Sarah Fein­berg, the for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tor of the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion, who had is­sued the safety ad­vi­sory

in De­cem­ber. “We can­not have some­one who is in that con­di­tion op­er­at­ing ei­ther a train go­ing 70 mph or op­er­at­ing a mul­ti­ton truck trav­el­ing down the in­ter­state. It’s just not an ap­pro­pri­ate level of risk to be ex­pos­ing pas­sen­gers and the trav­el­ing public to.”

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board said it was dis­ap­pointed that the agen­cies de­cided to scrap the “much­needed rule-mak­ing.”

“Ob­struc­tive sleep ap­nea has been the prob­a­ble cause of 10 high­way and rail ac­ci­dents in­ves­ti­gated by the NTSB in the past 17 years and ob­struc­tive sleep ap­nea is an is­sue be­ing ex­am­ined in sev­eral, on­go­ing, NTSB rail and high­way in­ves­ti­ga­tions,” Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board spokesman Christopher O’Neil said.

The Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board has long rec­om­mended sleep ap­nea test­ing for en­gi­neers, and Metro-North

and the Long Is­land Rail Road started re­quir­ing it af­ter find­ing that the en­gi­neer in a 2013 Metro-North crash had fallen asleep at the con­trols be­cause he had a se­vere, un­di­ag­nosed case of sleep ap­nea. The en­gi­neer, Wil­liam Rock­e­feller, told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that he felt strangely “dazed” right be­fore the crash, which oc­curred as he sped through a 30-mph curve at 82 mph.

The en­gi­neer of a New Jersey Tran­sit train that slammed into a sta­tion in Hobo­ken in Septem­ber, killing a wo­man, also suf­fered from un­di­ag­nosed sleep ap­nea, ac­cord­ing to his lawyer.

Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Chuck Schumer said he will push the fed­eral agen­cies to re­con­sider with­draw­ing the pro­posed reg­u­la­tion.

“We know from re­cent ex­am­ples that if there had been test­ing for sleep ap­nea there would be peo­ple alive walk­ing the face of the earth to­day who

are not, un­for­tu­nately, be­cause the en­gi­neer had sleep ap­nea,” he said Tues­day at a news con­fer­ence on Long Is­land.

When asked by The Associated Press in a sep­a­rate in­ter­view about the gov­ern­ment’s con­tention that busi­nesses could en­act their own test­ing poli­cies, the New York Demo­crat said: “Tell that to the fam­i­lies of the peo­ple who died in Spuyten Duyvil,” re­fer­ring to the neigh­bor­hood where the Metro-North train crashed in 2013, killing four peo­ple.

Train en­gi­neers are cur­rently re­quired to un­dergo vi­sion and hear­ing test­ing at least ev­ery three years. Some rail­roads re­quire an­nual phys­i­cals, but there are no fed­eral stan­dards for com­pre­hen­sive med­i­cal ex­ams. Many of the largest pas­sen­ger rail­roads, in­clud­ing Am­trak, re­quire en­gi­neers to un­dergo sleep ap­nea screen­ing.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Rail­roads, an in­dus­try

group, said rail­roads are con­tin­u­ing to take steps to com­bat worker fa­tigue, in­clud­ing con­fi­den­tial sleep dis­or­der screen­ing and treat­ment.

Marc Wil­lis, a spokesman for the Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion, said the agency sought in­for­ma­tion from the public about sleep ap­nea and “be­lieves that cur­rent rail­road and [Fed­eral Rail­road Ad­min­is­tra­tion] safety pro­grams suf­fi­ciently ad­dress this risk.”

Fein­berg said that isn’t suf­fi­cient, and the gov­ern­ment shouldn’t rely on in­dus­tries reg­u­lat­ing them­selves.

A no­tice posted in the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter said the Fed­eral Mo­tor Car­rier Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion would con­sider up­dat­ing a 2015 bul­letin to med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers about the phys­i­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the agency, de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board’s con­cerns.

AP file photo

In­ves­ti­ga­tors look at the scene of a char­ter bus crash on Cal­i­for­nia 99 be­tween At­wa­ter and Livingston in Au­gust 2016. U.S. of­fi­cials are aban­don­ing plans to re­quire sleep ap­nea screen­ing for truck drivers and rail­road en­gi­neers.

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