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More than just counting hours: How sleep apnea plays into driver fatigue

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Fatigue is one of the most common health and safety concerns among drivers on the road, and while sleep loss often plays a role in feeling fatigued, counting hours doesn’t always tell the whole story.

Mary Convey, SleepSafe Drivers director of key accounts and risk mitigation, delivered a presentation on poor rest, sleep apnea and fatigue solutions at the National Tank Truck Carriers’ 2018 Tank Truck Week in Nashville earlier this week.

Convey noted that, while sleepiness often accompanies fatigue, the two are not the same thing. Lack of sleep can play a role in fatigue, but fatigue can also be caused by working too much, inactivity, unhealthy eating or a variety of medical condition. Sleepiness, which results from simple lack of sleep, is best solved by sleep, while fatigue is best solved by rest. Rest may or may not include sleep, according to the presentation.

“You can have a physical condition that makes you fatigued. You can also not sleep, which will create more fatigue. You can have stress in your life. People undergoing chemotherapy or who have rheumatoid arthritis can have fatigue,” Convey said. “There are many factors that affect and wreak havoc on fatigue.”

Driver fatigue affects everything from productivity and absenteeism to safety incidents and injuries, according to Convey.

One unintended consequence of fatigue is microsleeps, or brief episodes of lost attention. According to Convey’s presentation, microsleeps are positively correlated with accident risk, with more frequent and longer microsleep episodes resulting in higher accident risk.

The Federal Motor Vehicle Carrier Safety Administration estimates that driver fatigue may be a factor in 13 percent of accidents involving commercial trucks, and 97 percent of employers in the transportation industry said they “feel the impact of fatigue” in a survey conducted across safety-critical industries.

When carriers are putting together fatigue management programs, Convey urges them to consider one medical issue that often affects drivers quality of rest: sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes breathing to repeatedly stop and start throughout the night, and people who suffer from the disorder often suffer from chronic sleep deprivation even when clocking plenty of hours each night due to the poor quality of their rest.

According to FMCSA statistics, 28 percent of truck drivers suffer from sleep apnea, compared to 7 percent of the general population. Common symptoms include snoring, fatigue and daytime sleepiness.

Convey encouraged carriers to develop fatigue management programs that address sleep apnea and put guidelines into place that combat driver fatigue instead of exacerbate it.

“When you take care of a driver, who is a human being, you’re going to keep them in that seat longer,” she said.

Convey cited promising results from two prominent companies during her presentation. She said Schneider’s decision to treat sleep apnea saved $400 per month on health plan costs per driver, increased retention, reduced crash risk and decreased DOT-reportable crashes.

J.B. Hunt also reduced medical costs 56 percent after treating drivers for sleep apnea, according to Convey.

Ashley Coker

Ashley is interested in everything that moves, especially trucks and planes. She covers air cargo, trucking and sponsored content. She studied journalism at Middle Tennessee State University and worked as an editor and reporter at two daily newspapers before joining FreightWaves. Ashley spends her free time at the dog park with her beagle, Ruth, or scouring the internet for last minute flight deals.