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Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome in train drivers

Obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (OSAS) is a sleep disorder in which the back of a person’s throat closes up during sleep and they stop breathing until their brain wakes them up. OSAS is an important health issue for the rail industry because when the condition goes unrecognised in individuals and remains untreated it can result in excessive sleepiness and increased risk.

 

People who suffer from OSAS have poor quality sleep – the person's breathing can stop for 20 to 30 seconds hundreds of times in each sleep period – and this means they can become very sleepy during the day.

Our research showed that the occurrence of OSAS might be higher amongst train drivers than in the general population. It found that unrecognised OSAS was present in individuals working in safety critical roles, and that the condition might have contributed to safety incidents they were involved in, including signals passed at danger (SPAD) events. This has highlighted the need to improve awareness, recognition and management of OSAS as a health issue in the rail industry.

When OSAS is diagnosed and treated the risk of accidents can be mitigated. Following diagnosis, treatment, and satisfactory reassessment at follow-up, it is usually possible for staff return to work to safety critical operations within 10 to 14 days and sometimes sooner.

This important research fed into our guidance on medical fitness for railway safety critical workers.

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