KING CITY, Ont. –The sample size may be small, but the results of a sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment program implemented by Praxair, are nonetheless encouraging.
Praxair’s Dave Johnson was on-hand at the Private Motor Truck Council (PMTC) of Canada’s annual convention to share the results of a sleep apnea treatment program the company made available to all its drivers. Unfortunately, he admitted, only five of the company’s 100 or so drivers took part in the voluntary program. He chalked this up to a lingering fear that diagnosis with sleep apnea can result in a driver’s licence being pulled or worse, the loss of their job.
It’s a fear that, while overblown, isn’t entirely baseless, he said.
“They were skeptical,” he said of the company’s drivers. “Can I lose my licence over this? The answer is, it’s possible. It’s a remote possibility, it rarely happens, but the Ministry of Transportation does have a section that says a physician is required to report any condition that may affect a person’s ability to operate a motor vehicle and sleep apnea is one of those conditions.”
An employer, however, can’t fire a driver simply because they’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea.
“We were told (by human resources and legal advisors) that we couldn’t force people to do this and we were told we couldn’t fire anyone,” Johnson said. “If a driver has terrible sleep apnea and can’t tolerate the CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, we have to find them another job at Praxair.”
Before rolling the program out, Praxair began educating drivers on sleep apnea itself. By now most in the industry know that obstructive sleep apnea is a condition that causes a person to stop breathing as often as 100 times per hour (in extreme cases) while sleeping due to a blockage of the airway. Sleep apnea sufferers never get fully rested, because their sleep is constantly interrupted by the loss of oxygen to the brain, Johnson explained. And while it’s easy to dismiss (who hasn’t gone to work after a restless night?), Johnson put the condition in perspective this way: “You can’t do that (sleep deprivation) in Guantanamo Bay. It’s a form of torture.”
When Praxair decided to introduce a sleep apnea treatment program, it also vowed it would be completely confidential and participating drivers would incur no costs. Of course, that presented some challenges -how would a driver file for reimbursement of any uncovered expenses while remaining anonymous?
“That’s where the confidentiality got a little dicey,” Johnson admitted.
Unfortunately, only five drivers volunteered for the program, although others benefited from the increased awareness spurred by the educational campaign.
“My feelings are that some others went out on their own and sought treatment,” Johnson said.
Of the five who volunteered, all were diagnosed with sleep apnea and began CPAP treatment, consisting of a machine with a mask that’s worn while sleeping to keep the airway passage unrestricted. Since then, a year has elapsed. Johnson says the five drivers who took part were involved in two accidents in the 12 months preceding treatment. They were completely accident-free in the 12 months following treatment. Just as importantly, their quality of life has improved and they are “happier drivers,” Johnson added.
“We seem to have better drivers. Our supervisors are reporting these guys are actually happier drivers, they’re less grumpy, they have a better attitude and that’s good for everyone.”
Despite the limited sample size, Johnson’s a believer in the program. His only wish is that the company could make the program mandatory for all drivers.
“We begged HR and legal, but they wouldn’t let us,” he said. Even so, the five treated drivers have become ambassadors for the program, so there’s hope more drivers will seek treatment as the company continues to raise awareness about the condition.