Two federal agencies recently acted together to eliminate an Obama proposal mandating transportation companies test their employees for cases of sleep apnea.
Two federal agencies recently acted together to eliminate an Obama proposal mandating transportation companies test their employees for cases of sleep apnea.

As revealed in an official statement from the White House Office of the Federal Register, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration are rescinding a rule proposed during the Obama administration that would require train and freight transportation companies to test newly hired operators for obstructive sleep apnea.

The two agencies mentioned that while obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, was a worthwhile and continuous concern, there are already resources, programs and rules that exist to adequately address the issue. The statement then noted it would leave mandating preemptive detection of the condition to companies themselves.

This proposal cut is the latest in what has amounted to hundreds of slashed regulations and delays by the Trump administration, many of which are tied to the occupational, transportation, and energy industries.

Obstructive sleep apnea can be deadly in transportation industry

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, obstructive sleep apnea is the most common overall form of the condition. It occurs when a person’s airway becomes blocked or collapses as they sleep causing, thin or paused breathing. These pauses can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and can occur dozens of times in an hour. The aggravation of the normal breathing pattern disrupts the person affected and prevents them from entering a deep sleep.

Sleep apnea is the leading cause of daytime drowsiness and most people don’t know they have it since it only occurs while sleeping. It often goes undiagnosed because it is undetectable by clinical blood tests or during routine check-ups. Treatments are available via nasal strips, breathing masks or surgeries in severe cases.

The institute also noted that when untreated, the disorder can increase a person’s chances of having a driving accident.

“Obstructive sleep apnea has been in 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,” said Christopher O’Neil, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, according to NPR.

Case for new regulation built then slept on

The revoked ruling was originally posed in March of 2016 in a report from the FMCSA and FRA detailing the results of their requests for public data from recent years regarding OSA causing individuals operating highway and railway transportation vehicles to have accidents.

The report cited, among other cases, an accident in Jackson, Tennessee, in which the driver of a tractor-trailer suffering from a severe case of OSA hit a Tennessee Highway Patrol vehicle and killed the officer inside. The tractor-trailer then crossed the median into oncoming traffic and hit a Chevrolet Blazer, whose driver survived but was seriously injured. The OSA in the tractor-trailer driver was unreported during medical certification exams previously taken. The NTSB concluded in their investigation that the driver was impaired due to sleep apnea, and that the accident resulted from the driver being permitted to operate with the dangerous condition due to lack of proper medical affirmation.

According to the Associated Press, while the now-dead bill was being sent through the congressional regulatory process, the FRA released a statement in December 2016 insisting that rail companies test for sleep apnea in employees. Without Congress’ passing of the proposed mandate, regulators could not penalize trucking or rail companies if one of their operators fell asleep and caused an accident.

“It’s very hard to argue that people aren’t being put at risk,” said Sarah Feinberg, former FRA administrator, in the December 2016 statement, as reported by Associated Press. “We cannot have someone who is in that condition operating either a train going 70 mph or operating a multi-ton truck traveling down the interstate. It’s just not an appropriate level of risk to be exposing passengers and the traveling public to.”

Marc Willis, an FRA spokesperson, told the Associated Press the agency “believes that current railroad and FRA safety programs sufficiently address this risk,” after reviewing public sleep apnea data. New York City’s Metro-North rail line adopted the policy and found that 11.6 percent of its conductors suffered from sleep apnea.

The August 8 statement in the Federal Register also noted that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will consider updating a bulletin to medical examiners from 2015 detailing physical requirements and respiratory dysfunction information. It is currently unclear when this update will occur or how many businesses could enact tighter OSA testing procedures because of it.

But Feinberg recently told the Associated Press that she doesn’t believe transportation industry players can regulate themselves. And there are still efforts being made to convince the agencies to reverse their elimination of the proposal.

“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,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, during an August 8 news conference on Long Island, as reported by Associated Press.

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