NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced plans Monday to spend millions of dollars to screen employees for a health condition that can have deadly consequences.
The move comes three years after the deadly Spuyten Duyvil Metro-North crash — blamed in part on the engineer’s undiagnosed sleep apnea.
Now, the MTA is going farther than any transit agency in the country, ordering sleep apnea screenings for every commuter train and subway operator as well as every bus driver.
Sleep apnea is a medical disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts while a person is sleeping, sometimes hundreds of times, when the patient’s throat muscles intermittently relax and block his or her windpipe. This results in insufficient sleep. If left untreated, someone with the disorder functions with reduced alertness and may involuntarily fall asleep.
“We feel like it’s the right thing to do to ensure customer safety and the safety of the general public to extend this program to everyone who has direct responsibility for train and bus movement,” MTA Chief Safety Officer David Mayer tells CBS2’s Tony Aiello.
Mayer says employees will be screened during their periodic MTA physicals, where they will complete a questionnaire to gauge their risk for drowsiness.
The doctor will look for other sleep apnea factors, including a neck circumference greater than 17 inches.
“If our physicians note that one of our operators is at risk for having sleep apnea because of those factors then our employee will be referred for a sleep study,” Mayer says.
That study can be done either at a sleep lab or at home using special equipment.
“Considering I take both the Long Island Rail Road and the subway every day I’m very glad they’re doing that!” Dr. Steven Feinsilver of Lenox Hill Hospital said.
Feinsilver says treatment for apnea usually involves a so-called “CPAP” machine worn at bedtime. It’s so effective that the risk of on-the-job drowsiness usually drops significantly.
“I would be okay with people continuing to do even high-risk professions if they’re treated,” Feinsilver said.
Sleep apnea is suspected in both the September Hoboken crash and the Atlantic Terminal crash earlier this month. Metro-North has screened almost 500 engineers and trainees — about ten percent were found to have sleep apnea.