Safety debate rises over Obama regulation trashed by Trump

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President Donald J. Trump promised to eliminate job-killing federal regulations from the Obama administration, and an executive order in January required two regulations to be revoked for every new rule put forth.

However, safety advocates are calling out the elimination of one rule as a dangerous decision, as it was intended to address a growing problem of workers falling asleep on the job.

The Obama administration had implemented formal mandates that all transportation workers operating planes, trains, buses, and trucks be screened for sleep apnea – a condition that prevents people from getting enough sleep.

Since 2009, fatalities have increased by 20 percent in large truck crashes, and a 2013 train derailment in New York was discovered to have been caused by an engineer who simply fell asleep while operating the train.

After the train derailment in 2013, Metro-North tested all of its engineers for sleep apnea and discovered about 18 percent of them suffered from the condition, which can cause a person to stop breathing repeatedly while they’re sleeping, severely reducing the amount of sleep they’re actually getting.

A rule is already in place requiring airplane pilots to be fully treated for the condition before they can operate a plane.

Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announced that plans for a federal rule requiring sleep apnea screening and treatment for all rail and truck operators is being abandoned, indicating that individual company’s safety programs are already appropriate and there is no need for a federal regulation on top of that.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation (DOT) stated, “The agencies determined that current and upcoming safety programs appropriately address fatigue risks, including OSA [obstructive sleep apnea]. FRA will continue to monitor railroads’ voluntary OSA programs and compliance with fatigue risk management plans, once implemented as part of risk reduction and system safety program.”

The transportation industry itself had opposed a federal rule, noting that many companies already voluntarily do testing for sleep apnea, and a requirement is already in place for drivers to be regularly examined by a DOT-certified medical examiner, and companies also have their own rules to combat fatigue.

A spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads said, “As an industry committed to safety, railroads recognize that employee fatigue is a real concern. Long before the FRA began examining standards, the industry took innovative steps to combat fatigue in the workplace. Those efforts continue.  Every railroad has their own plans to ensure crews are properly rested.”

Safety advocates are crying foul over the federal regulation being removed.

Catherine Chase, VP of governmental affairs for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, expressed strong concern that the federal government will no longer be monitoring testing for sleep apnea, stating, “It’s incredibly dangerous to think someone behind the wheel of an 80,000-lb. rig might have this disorder and fall asleep while driving,” and adding, “Truck death crashes are on the rise, and we need to think of solutions instead of taking away potential answers.”

Chase believes the federal government needs to make sure each company complies with the testing, instead of leaving it up to them. “There’s no way to hold someone to that responsibility. While one company may do it, another may not. Therefore, you’re sacrificing the safety of all motorists,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers are fuming over the elimination of the federal rule. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Wednesday, “I was outraged… This rule reversal is inexcusable. The slew of crashes and tragic incidents resulting from inadequate safety screening for sleep disorders are examples of why we need this rule.”

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have also spoken out against the move. Booker said it is “shortsighted and dangerous” and Schumer has vowed to keep up the pressure to get the federal rule in place.

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