Comment: Addressing sleep apnoea in truck drivers

By: Rebecca Dinmore, Executive Officer, NZTA


Fatigue is a common truck driver health issue but we don’t always know what causes it. There are many reasons for suffering from fatigue but a common one is sleep disorders.

If you are suffering from chronic fatigue, you may have a sleep disorder that you are not aware of. It can be difficult to diagnose, especially if you sleep alone. Ask yourself how refreshed do you feel 30 minutes after getting up in the morning after sleeping for eight hours. If you feel completely exhausted or rather un-refreshed, then you may have a sleep disorder. Some of the common symptoms include:

  • snoring loudly enough to disturb the sleep of others or wake yourself up,
  • shortness of breath, gasping for, air or chocking that awakens you from sleep,
  • intermittent pauses in your breathing during sleep, and
  • excessive daytime drowsiness, which may cause you to fall asleep while you’re working, watching TV, or even driving.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you may need to make an appointment with your doctor to identify whether you have a sleep disorder such as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). This is a particularly common one in the transport industry, present in approximately 41% of commercial transport operators (fitforduty.co.nz). It is a major concern because of the associated risk of fatigue and falling asleep behind the wheel.

Sleep apnoea is a condition in which a person stops breathing during sleep. Common symptoms include snoring, waking up un-refreshed, day-time fatigue, mood swings, and headaches. When you go to sleep, the muscles in your body relax, including the ones that hold your airways open. For some, the airway is very narrow when sleeping and their breathing causes vibrations (snoring). Some people snore so loudly that the relaxed airway completely sucks shuts; this is called an apnoea, which means without breath. During an apnoea, a person continues to sleep even though they are unable to breathe for 10 seconds or more. The need to take a breath outweighs the ability to stay in a deep sleep, so the person enters into a lighter sleep, which allows the airway to open again. The cost of this is interrupted deep sleep and if your deep sleep is being interrupted several hundred times throughout the night, then you are more likely to be fatigued and tired during the day.

If your family notices loud snoring or pauses in your breathing during sleep, you should get tested for sleep apnoea.

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The Log Transport Safety Council developed a video about sleep apnoea, featuring two transport operators who share their stories of how they suffered from and overcame sleep apnoea. Check it out at logtruck.co.nz. It can be difficult to seek help if you think you are suffering from sleep apnoea but have a legal duty to ensure that you are fit for the road.

There are successful CPAP treatment options and you will be amazed at how great you feel and will probably wish you had done it sooner. If you do not seek help or share your concerns with your employer, it is only a matter of time before you fall asleep at the wheel, putting yourself and others in extreme danger.

If as an employer, you have staff who suffer fatigue caused by untreated sleep apnoea, they are a hazard in the workplace. You need to take steps to help your employees, which may include funding testing for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea in the workplace. As part of your health and safety to reduce the hazard and look after the wellbeing of your staff, consider offering free sleep apnoea testing. If anyone is diagnosed with OSA, they need to discontinue any driving roles and not resume until they have had adequate treatment and their symptoms are under control.

  • Getting tested and treated from your doctor is the first step. There are also things you can do at home to reduce your symptoms:
  • Stop smoking: cigarette smoking increases the swelling in your airways that can aggravate symptoms
  • Limit alcohol: alcohol reduces muscle tone in the back of your throat, which can interfere with airflow
  • Lose weight if you need to: around half of people who suffer sleep apnoea are also overweight or obese. Slimming down can improve your symptoms.
  • Eat healthier: when you don’t get enough sleep your craving for carbs and sugary foods increases, but this will worsen feelings of fatigue
  • Control your allergies: sleeping and breathing will be even harder when you are stuffed up from nasal allergies

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