Government should encourage employers to screen drivers for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, writes Meg Munn MP.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is an important organisation; its role is to prevent people being killed, injured or being made ill by work. However there is one huge gap in its activity – and that is driving for work. Deaths and injuries in other work places are properly investigated by the HSE but this does not happen for work related death on our roads.
Recently the transport minister released figures showing that where the journey purpose was known and recorded as "part of work", 24 per cent of serious injuries and 30 per cent of road deaths could be linked to work-related road traffic accidents in 2010. So using these figures we are talking about 11 deaths on average every week and 105 people seriously injured.
I became aware of this gap in coverage by the HSE through an interest in the identification of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA), particularly in lorry drivers. Some years ago I was contacted by a constituent following the death of his 25 year old nephew, Toby Tweddell, who was killed in 2006 by a lorry driven by someone with undiagnosed sleep apnoea. The link between untreated Obstructive Sleep Apnoea and road traffic accidents is well established.
Someone with Obstructive Sleep Apnoea experiences repeated episodes of apnoea – that is breathing is temporarily suspended because of a narrowing or closure of the airway in the upper throat during sleep. It results in episodes of brief awakening to restore normal breathing, of which the person may or may not be aware. The sustained failure to get proper restful sleep means the affected person is constantly tired and liable to fall asleep during the day.
This condition affects many people, but the rate amongst lorry drivers is significantly higher than for the general population. It is linked with the sedentary lifestyle of many who drive for a living. According to medical experts there are likely to be between 10–20 per cent of lorry drivers affected by sleep problems. With 400,000 LGV drivers this gives a minimum estimate of 40,000 affected drivers.
But Obstructive Sleep Apnoea is easily diagnosed and most sufferers are easily treated. Having drivers screened within the workplace would be a significant contributor to the health and safety of lorry drivers and other road users. Given the cost in lives and money from road driving accidents I believe the government must encourage employers to screen their drivers for sleep apnoea and ensure that the Health and Safety Executive are directed to use their expertise to investigate death and serious injuries on our roads.