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Trump Nixes Plan to Weed Out Sleepy Train Engineers and Truck Drivers

Not screening for sleep apnea will put lives at risk.

by Ed Cara
Aug 10 2017, 3:12pm

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; 2013 Metro-North derailment, Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images

While much of President Donald Trump's agenda has failed to materialize so far, one aspect of it has largely gone off without a hitch: his pledge to strip down, delay, or withdraw the supposedly job-killing regulations of the Obama era.

Case in point, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) jointly announced last Friday they will drop a planned rule mandating train engineers and truck drivers to be screened for obstructive sleep apnea—even though several widely publicized crashes have been directly linked to sleep deprived engineers and drivers plagued by the condition in recent years. Instead, the status quo will be kept in place, the federal government leaving it up to individual companies to decide whether to test their employees.

"The agencies believe that current safety programs and FRA's rulemaking addressing fatigue risk management are the appropriate avenues to address [sleep apnea]," concluded their joint memo.

People with obstructive sleep apnea are unable to breath properly during sleep. Their airways regularly collapse, which accounts for the loud snoring we associate with it. At worst, the airway becomes completely blocked off, suffocating the person until their bodies reflexively gasp for air. Though this cycle goes unnoticed all night, the fits of interrupted sleep pile up, usually leaving sufferers drowsy and tired during the day.

The heavy push by the Obama administration to enforce sleep apnea testing started last March, following years of concerns over the dangers posed by fatigued employees. One particular clarion call came in 2013, when a crash along the Metro-North Railroad in New York killed four and injured dozens—the engineer, who reportedly fell asleep right before the accident, was later revealed to be suffering from severe apnea. In response, the Metro-North instituted its own mandatory testing of employees.

While sleep apnea is a relatively common condition that affects upwards of 3 million Americans, the long and late night shifts truckers and train engineers often take on seem to make them more vulnerable to it. A study conducted by the Metro-North following the 2013 crash found that 11.6 percent, or more than one in every ten of its engineers, are suffering from it.

Last May, the federal agencies formally announced the start of a years-long process that would work out the details of a universal rule, which led to meetings with medical experts, lawmakers and industry representatives. By all indications, it seemed inevitable the rule would take effect, especially as more accidents continued to happen. Last September, a derailment off New Jersey's commuter rail injured over 100 commuters and killed one; a month later, the engineer at blame was formally diagnosed with severe apnea. The FRA issued a safety advisory in the wake of the crash in December, which recommended companies begin testing their employees. Unlike a formal regulation, however, companies would have faced no penalties for failing to do so.

The withdrawal of the rule was foreshadowed as early as this January, when officials from the FMCSA made clear they wouldn't enact any significant regulations this year, according to interviews held with the Journal of Commerce. Meanwhile, the acting chief of the FRA, Heath Hall, is a longstanding Republican appointed by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao; Chao's previous tenure as Secretary of Labor during the George W. Bush administration has been marred by critics as one that often ignored workplace safety and wage violations (both agencies are among many that Trump has failed to appoint a head administrator to as of yet).

Expected as this move was, there are plenty of people worried about the fallout. "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," Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, who represents New York, said in a news conference held Tuesday.

"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," NTSB spokesman Christopher O'Neil told the AP.

None might be more distraught by the news than those personally affected by these preventable tragedies, though. "They can't do the simple things like protect the people they are carrying and protect their workers," Nancy Montgomery, the wife of Jim Lowell—one of the four who perished in the 2013 Metro-North crash—told NBC News. "It's the little guy that's getting killed. They've just taken away the test that could have saved my husband's life."

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