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Chicago train crash underscores dangers of dozing off on the job

Succumbing to sleepiness at work may seem harmless if the only casualty is the coffee on your desk. But if your work involves sitting behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, it can lead to serious consequences.

Just last week, the operator of a commuter train in Chicago fell asleep during her shift. At around 3 a.m., the train jumped the tracks, skidded across the platform and rammed through an escalator at O’Hare International Airport. More than two dozen people were hurt. This CCTV footage shows the moments leading up to the derailment and the crash on March 24.

After the crash, the train operator reportedly said she had worked a lot of overtime recently and was extremely tired. The operator also admitted to nodding off on previous shifts. This is not uncommon. A recent poll for the National Sleep Foundation found 26% of train operators said sleepiness impacted their job performance at least once a week. The same poll found 23% of pilots and 15% of truck drivers also reported being sleepy to the point of it affecting their job.

Fighting sleepiness while driving or at work can be a sign of sleep apnea, a very common sleep disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing during sleep. Shift workers who take on extra work, like the train operator in Chicago, are at a higher risk of chronic fatigue and of developing sleep apnea.

No structured rule mandating sleep apnea testing for train operators exists in the United States. However, in 2004, a number of sleep-related derailments in North America led the Canadian Railway Association to implement medical guidelines for physicians in Canada around screening, diagnosing and treating railway employees for severe sleep apnea. These guidelines must be followed by the railway industry for compliance under the Railway Safety Act.

In the U.S., a derailment in Clarkston, Michigan in 2001 (NTSB determined probable cause was fatigue, and the train operator had untreated sleep apnea) prompted the Federal Rail Administration to issue a safety advisory on sleep apnea in 2004. Recommendations included establishing training and education programs on fatigue and sleep disorders and ensuring employee medical examinations include assessment and screening for sleep disorders.

In addition to the rail industry, the agencies that regulate pilots and truck drivers in the U.S. are trying to address the health and safety risks associated with sleep apnea – but through a more structured approach. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is pushing to make sleep apnea testing and treatment mandatory for pilots with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40, and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is proposing sleep apnea testing be mandatory as part of a fitness for duty assessment.

However, progress is stalled as critics of the proposed regulations force FAA and the FMCSA to go through the formal rulemaking process. It is not clear how long this process will take, but with incidents like the one in Chicago, FAA and FMCSA appear to be on the right track.