More sleep apnea testing for truck drivers is likely on the horizon after the U.S. Supreme Court decided to let stand an appellate court ruling that the trucker's civil rights were not violated by an employer who required the testing. The Parker v. Crete Carrier Corp. ruling was welcome news for those advocating measures to reduce Jonesboro trucking accidents, and was even supported by the American Trucking Association in its amicus brief.
Previous research has held that truckers who ignore a sleep apnea condition are five times more likely to be involved in a preventable crash. As it stands, an estimated 20 percent of all large truck crashes are due to drowsy driving, and sleep apnea is a widespread but often missed condition that can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness and fatigue. It is characterized as a disorder wherein a person repeatedly stops breathing while sleeping - sometimes up to 400 times a night. This is not only potentially life-threatening, it can lead to severe grogginess while awake. Sufferers may have no idea why they are so tired.
Trucker Loses Lawsuit
Plaintiff trucker in Parker had argued requiring him to undergo a medical examination was a violation of his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and that it discriminated against him because it regarded him as having a disability.
About three years prior to his filing, the commercial carrier initiated a sleep apnea testing program for its drivers, following recommendations from the Medical Review Board of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. That recommendation indicated drivers with a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or higher with other risk factors should undergo an additional examination for obstructive sleep apnea. (These standards were later updated to stipulate testing is recommended for drivers with a BMI over 40 or a BMI of 33 or higher if other risk factors are present.) FMCSA recommended these studies involve a comprehensive in-lab sleep study.
When the carrier initiated this program, plaintiff had a BMI over 35 and was instructed to undergo the sleep study. Plaintiff responded with a note from his doctor (not associated with the carrier) indicating he did not feel it was medically necessary for plaintiff to undergo a sleep study. The following week, plaintiff trucker refused to undergo the study. The carrier pulled him out-of-service, and did not reinstate him.
Plaintiff filed his employment lawsuit. Trial court granted summary judgment to trucking carrier, and that decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit - a ruling allowed to stand by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Labor law attorneys note that courts may be generally reluctant to assign ADA protection for the condition of obesity.
Why Sleep Apnea is Dangerous for Big Rig Drivers
One study conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that truckers with sleep apnea that is left untreated are five times more likely to be involved in a preventable crash at work than their colleagues who don't have the condition. Researchers estimate some 20 percent of all large truck accidents in Arkansas and beyond are the direct result of drowsy driving.
There is no federal regulatory system in place to track or treat sleep apnea sufferers who are truckers, though as mentioned earlier, the FMCSA does recommend testing for drivers who are obese and have other known risk factors.
Officials are working on standard guidelines for tracking and testing for more than a year now. The proposed rule would require truckers diagnosed with sleep apnea to undergo treatment if they wish to continue to drive.
The ruling by the Supreme Court means smaller trucking companies will feel free to require truckers to pay for their own testing, which costs about $1,200, which represents about 1.5 weeks of pay for the average driver.