Everyone involved with the railroad industry is well aware of the dangers of a train operator falling asleep on the job. Even becoming very sleepy or drowsy for a member of the train crew can mean a loss of concentration or awareness that can have dire consequences.
What is Sleep Apnea?
And a particularly dangerous issue involves something called “obstructive sleep apnea.” This is the most common form of sleep apnea (there are three kinds). It involves sleeping with the throat muscles relaxing enough that the airway becomes blocked; snoring is a sign this is happening.
Obstructive sleep apnea can cause someone to be very tired during the day since they haven’t had a restful night’s sleep. They may fall asleep while on the job, or driving a car – or operating a train.
And key here: victims of sleep apnea may not realize that they have this disease or condition. Many sleep apnea victims may not even realize that their nightly sleep has been disrupted by it, arising each morning with the mistaken assumption that they have had a good night’s rest.
Fatal Train Accidents Happen Because of Sleep Apnea
As an example, the National Institute of Health recently issued a report on one fatal train crash caused by the train engineer’s “severe obstructive sleep apnea.” McKay, Mary Pat. “Fatal Consequences: Obstructive Sleep Apnea in a Train Engineer.” Annals of Family Medicine 13.6 (2015): 583–586. PMC. Web. 9 Aug. 2017.
In this fatal railroad accident, a New York passenger train went off the rails (derailed) near a Bronx station while moving at 82 mph over a curve with a maximum speed limit of 30 mph. No one was with the engineer up in the cab car to monitor his demeanor or actions. Seven people died in the crash.
Afterwards, the engineer was interviewed about what happened. He said he was “dazed” at the time, and investigation into his medical condition, work schedule, and sleep habits revealed that he suffered from sleep apnea.
This is far from a solitary example. There have been notable fatal train crashes caused by sleep apnea in Arkansas near the Missouri border (conductor and engineer both died in the accident) and in New Jersey when a train rammed into the Hoboken Terminal (100+ people injured).
Key in all these fatal crashes: the railroad worker was NOT AWARE that he suffered from any kind of sleep disorder. All these workers thought they were just fine.
Proposed Federal Rule to Protect Against Sleep Apnea Train Crashes
Last year, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) proposed a new federal regulation that would fight against the danger of railroad accidents caused by railroaders suffering from sleep apnea.
A notice was published in the Federal Register in March 2016. In the notice, the FRA pointed to the “prevalence of moderate-to-severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) among individuals occupying safety sensitive positions in highway and rail transportation, and on its potential consequences for the safety of rail and highway transportation.”
Many in the industry believed that very soon there would be federal protections against this kind of crash. Now we know that’s not going to happen.
Proposed Sleep Apnea Railroader Rule Withdrawn in August 2017
This proposed rule was officially withdrawn on August 8, 2017, by the federal government. So there will be no specific federal oversight of this danger to train employees, railroaders, passengers, and the public at large.
Why? According to the FRA, in its explanation for the withdrawal:
“OSA remains an on-going concern for the Agencies and the motor carrier and railroad industries because it can cause unintended sleep episodes and resulting deficits in attention, concentration, situational awareness, and memory, thus reducing the capacity to safely respond to hazards when performing safety sensitive duties.“
However, the decision has been made that (1) the FRA’s current “fatigue risk management” is enough to cover the dangers of OSA. This includes a 2004 FRA Safety Advisory (2004-04) with an industry alert to the risks of railroaders on the job with “undiagnosed or unsuccessfully treated sleep disorders (69 FR 58995, Oct. 1, 2004).
The FRA also points to (2) private industry endeavors to fight against the danger of sleep apnea in its employees. These railroad companies have been screening and treating OSA internally.
Finally, the FRA points to the (3) Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA), which mandates that railroad companies have to have “fatigue management plans” in place that include addressing “sleep disorders” (49 U.S.C. 20156(f)). Note that the RSIA does not specifically mention sleep apnea; it’s assumed that the private rail industry will include OSA in these “fatigue management plans.”
Sleep Apnea Danger Remains: Fatal Train Accidents Will Happen in the Future
In response to this announcement, experts gave their opinions on what the result will be for railroaders in the future. It’s not good.
In an article published by the Associated Press, written by Michael Balsamo and Michael R. Sisak and entitled, “Experts: Lives at risk if no sleep tests for train engineers,” those in the know warn that this decision is literally putting “millions of lives” in jeopardy.
Railroad Workers Remain In Danger Because of Sleep Apnea
Bottom line, the federal government has taken a step back from passing specific regulation for the diagnosis and treatment of sleep apnea, a known danger to train employees.
The reasons given are first that there are laws on the books that should suffice. They haven’t so far, safety experts warn.
And secondly, the government points to the railroader’s employers. Surely these railroad companies will do what is necessary to test their workers for possible sleep apnea issues?
Well, spending money on safety isn’t something that we can assume companies will do voluntarily. In our last post, CSX was nixing paying for work boots. So, anyone feeling confident on these companies doing what’s needed to make sure that workers are tested for sleep apnea?
After all, the sleep apnea victim does not know that he has this problem. Railroad workers operating trains today are doing so with OSA and putting themselves and others in great danger. They aren’t aware there’s a problem.
So the tragedy here is that railroad workers in Indiana and Illinois are in greater danger (as well as the general public) now from fatal train crashes. Let’s be careful out there!