Don’t sleep on it!
Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS) is the main focus of DVLA concern with people diagnosed with Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), a condition in which sufferers experience significant periods of not breathing, while they are asleep during to airway obstruction. Inadequate oxygenation of the body from OSA is bad for general health. Lack of deep sleep leads to those affected being fatigued and falling asleep easily during the day (even if they are not aware of OSA). Drivers who suffer from Sleep Apnoea must notify DVLA to get their condition reviewed and controlled before they can go on driving. DVLA are solely concerned about falling asleep while driving, not other health issues including exacerbation of diabetes or the increased tendency to heart disease and/or stroke.
Some reports suggest that about 20 per cent of adults suffer a significant degree of EDS, although OSA is only one cause. A far bigger cause is disturbed sleep due to things like shift work and caring duties for infants and sick dependants involving waking nights.
ESS (Epworth Sleepiness Scale) and AHI (Apnoea Hypopnoea Index) scores are used by medical practitioners to assess tendency to EDS. Some research suggests that ESS results are subjective and sleep specialists warn against them as wholly reliable assessments of EDS. Other research suggests that there is no clear correlation between AHI and ESS scores.
In assessing the risk of sleepiness while driving, AHI is a not very reliable measure for tendency to EDS. Arguably, were a better tool available and widely adopted, the DVLA might reduce its fixation on OSA. Many more ‘at risk’ drivers might be brought into the DVLA medical surveillance net, while at the same time releasing from continuing medical surveillance some OSA suffers who do not suffer significant EDS. Sleepiness, however, is a very transient and subjective state for which there are few reliable markers.
Medical practitioners should be made more aware of other non OSA related causes of EDS and arguably, where these cannot be brought under satisfactory control, DVLA should be informed as they are in cases where significant OSA is diagnosed.
At present the duty to inform DVLA about OSA is triggered by medical diagnosis. Opinions and guidance vary as to whether, once diagnosed, the OSA suffer should cease driving until given permission to resume by DVLA. DVLA stress that the primary duty not to drive while unfit from any cause rests with the driver. More publicity about sleep and driving may cause some drivers not to go to their doctors for fear of being suspended from driving while awaiting treatment – but in practice this fear is unfounded. Treatment, such as using CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) equipment at night is available via NHS sleep clinics and with a bit of practice is quite easy to use. It can quickly help the OSA sufferer to feel a whole lot better and have a lot more energy. More guidance is still needed for employers and potential sufferers. Responsible drivers need to pay more attention to ‘sleep hygiene’ and to finding ways of remaining alert when at the wheel. They need to be prepared to discuss sleepiness issues with their doctors and not be afraid of being caught in the DVLA medical surveillance net.
Sleepiness and road safety have been a big part of RoSPA’s policy and campaigning work on managing Occupational Road Riskcampaigns for nearly twenty years. (See our advice to employers at https://www.rospa.com/road-safety/resources/free/employers.) The key message is that employers must not cause their drivers to drive tired. It needs an intelligent approach. Anyone who feels sleepy at the wheel, regardless of the cause, knows they are becoming impaired and must stop and recover until they are safe to proceed.
RoSPA’sNational Occupational Health Safety Committee (which brings together the main institutional stakeholders in this area) has begun work on tackling fatigue in the workplace. This is not only highly topical because of its links to mental health and ‘wellness’ but its impact on safety and accidents in the workplace have generally been underplayed up to now. New guidance however is now available in the form of the HSE fatigue risk index (see http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrhtm/rr446.htm).
ROSPA are thinking about producing some guidance on OSA and Employment (‘OSA and your job’ perhaps?), helping both sufferers and their managers to better understand the issues involved and to avoid over-the-top, excessively risk averse responses that might lead them to exclude OSA sufferers from certain roles ‘on health safety grounds’. Talking to specialists and consultants reveals how reluctant many of their patients are to reveal to their employers that they have had an OSA diagnosis. There is undoubtedly a lot of prejudice and misinformation in the workplace about this issue, and about fatigue and sleepiness generally – which, of course, goes a lot wider than OSA. ‘cat napping’, as an essential coping mechanism in the workplace, (especially for older workers who make up a bigger proportion of the workforce these days) ought to be a widely understood and accepted coping mechanism, not seen as an outlandish idea.
If you have experience in tackling problems experienced by workers in getting enough good quality sleep we’d like to hear from you.
Roger Bibbings MBE CFIOSH
Partnership Consultant RoSPA May 2019