It has long been accepted that carrying excess weight can cause snoring, and that as we get older there is a greater likelihood of this happening. The soft tissue of the throat softens as we age and has a tendency to restrict the airflow as a result. As a consequence when we force air through the narrowed throat, the resultant vibration is the sound of snoring and the worse the constriction, the louder the problem.
This deprivation of oxygen also causes poor sleep and it results in next day drowsiness or fatigue, dependent on the severity of the problem. At its worst, OSA is the result (obstructive sleep apnoea), and this can damage health severely.
The DVLA, AA and other motoring organisations in the UK agree that a significant number of motorway accidents happen as a result of drowsiness caused by poor sleep hygiene, and the figure may be as high as 12% of all accidents. In the USA this percentage is even higher – almost 17% being attributed to this problem as obesity is a major problem in the country.
Strong attention has been paid for some years on alcohol consumption for both drivers and airline pilots, but that has now broadened to include sleep hygiene. As ever, the USA leads the way but this does of course include all pilots who fly there from other countries, not just US pilots.
In a month where here in the UK, we have already seen an Air Pakistan pilot jailed for 9 months for being three times over the accepted limit, this has been followed by the following steps being taken:
1. The Federal Aviation Authority is to check overweight pilots for restful sleep. Overweight airline pilots and air-traffic controllers are going to start getting a closer medical evaluation from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The change means that specialist aviation medical examiners will calculate each pilot’s Body Mass Index, which calculates weight divided by height, when they are examined every six months. Anyone with a BMI of at least 40 or who has at least a 17-inch neck would then have to be evaluated by a sleep specialist.
Pilots can then be disqualified if they have an untreated sleep problem called obstructive sleep apnoea, which can lead to daytime sleepiness, high blood pressure and other major health issues. The new test will require that overweight pilots be treated for obstructive sleep apnoea before receiving their certificates.
After all overweight pilots are treated, tests for obstructive sleep apnoea will be extended for all pilots because it has been assessed that 30% of people with a BMI that is less than 30, also suffer from the problem.
The policy change will be extended to air traffic controllers too; recent news has covered several incidents where controllers have fallen asleep on duty.
2. The US Senate passes sleep apnoea bill for truck drivers
In the same month the US Senate has recently passed a bill that that would compel the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to create new regulations addressing dangerous sleep disorders that have been found to be common among many truck drivers — including sleep apnoea.
- Overweight truck drivers account for 18 per cent of fatal truck accidents
- 86% of the 3.2 million truck drivers in the U.S. are overweight or obese
- 30% of American truck drivers are believed to have sleep apnoea
The overall result is that aggressive screening will now take place throughout the Transport Industry and we must ask ourselves the question how long it will be before it happens here – and perhaps it’s even a matter of the sooner the better.