OSA: “Voluntary” doesn’t make the grade

Written by David Schanoes, Contributing Editor

A friend and colleague sent the following letter to, among others, Dr. Amanda Emo, Fatigue Program Manager, Risk Reduction Program Division, Office of Safety Analysis, Federal Railroad Administration, regarding obstructive sleep apnea (OSA):

The recent announcement that the Federal Railroad Administration will not require mandatory sleep apnea testing is a dangerous step backwards for the safety of the public. Sleep apnea is a killer—not only of innocent victims of accidents, but also of the individuals who have sleep apnea.

Individuals who have sleep apnea and are not controlling it can fall asleep at any time, some times with disastrous results. The fatal derailment at Spuyten Duyvil where four Metro-North passengers lost their lives, the run-through collision at Hoboken where a New Jersey Transit train did not stop and an innocent bystander was killed, and the run-through accident at the Log Island Rail Road Atlantic Avenue terminal were all results of train operators with un-diagnosed sleep apnea falling asleep.

Railroads currently require mandatory testing for drug and alcohol impairment, color blindness, and other medical conditions. The aviation industry also has strict rules defining medical conditions that can affect safety. The desire to ease regulatory burdens should not interfere with the need to ensure that safety is the first priority.

I have sleep apnea and have had it for more than 20 years. I use a CPAP machine every night. I also am a railroader, having retired from Metro-North Railroad as Deputy Director of Transportation Engineering. I know how important it is for railroaders—of all ranks—to be fully awake and aware at all times. The public safety, and their own safety, depends upon it. The FRA should reverse itself and continue to require mandatory testing for sleep apnea.

Michael W. Savchak, P.E.

P.S.: I am currently the Principal of Krypton 60 Engineering PC, and do consulting on transportation engineering issues. Further information about my background and some of my efforts on sleep apnea awareness can be found on my website,

Mike received the following response from Dr. Emo:

Dear Mr. Savchak;

Thank you for contacting me regarding the withdrawal of the obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM). Safety remains FRA’s top priority. Although FRA will not be moving forward with a rulemaking specifically targeting OSA at this time, we will continue to explore ways to reduce excessive fatigue experienced by railroad employees.

FRA will continue to monitor railroads’ voluntary OSA programs and encourage railroads without such a program to work towards developing one. Additionally, forthcoming regulations will require that certain railroads, most particularly passenger and very large freight railroads, consider opportunities for the identification and treatment of OSA as part of a fatigue risk management program.

Once railroads have implemented their fatigue risk management programs, FRA will review how well these have worked to reduce the prevalence of untreated OSA in the industry.

FRA may again seek public comment and revisit pursuing a rulemaking specifically targeting OSA if existing measures are found to be inadequate.

I will be keeping a record of all comments received in response to the notice of withdrawal of the OSA ANPRM and will present this information to FRA leadership to help inform future safety initiatives.

Again, thank you for sharing your concerns about the safety risks posed by untreated OSA.

Dr. Emo is an expert in her field. I’m not here, and Mike didn’t write her, to question her expertise in her field.

However, her field is not safe train operations. That’s supposed to be the field of expertise of the “FRA leadership” for whom she is keeping a record of all comments received.

I am certain that the FRA leadership takes its obligation to safe train operations seriously. After all, that is the sole reason for FRA’s existence.

Those of us in the industry who have similar expertise in the area of safe train operations, who believe in engineering, designing, implementing and executing solutions to risk and vulnerability, are insistent, adamant (euphemisms for the railroad terms “stiff-necked” and “crusty”) that a decision to pursue OSA testing and treatment is not a technical issue, but an operating problem.

Like all operating solutions, reducing the risk posed by OSA requires technological input once the problem has been identified, acknowledged and quantified. FRA’s withdrawal of the ANPRM interferes with that process of identification, quantification and—ultimately—resolution.

Short version: “Voluntary” doesn’t make the grade. Voluntary is a sure fail, a big fat F, as in fatal.

However, interim measures mandating basic programs to mitigate the risk are already available.

Bill Keppen, my colleague and partner in the effort to get FRA to reverse this decision, has proposed a modest solution that provides for testing and treatment for individuals with OSA, while FRA decides on a path forward, if FRA really is interested in the path forward. That solution is for FRA to take over and adapt FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency governing commercial motor vehicle drivers) regulations for medical qualifying exams for those seeking a commercial vehicle license.

They’re not a perfect solution. While FMCSA regulations do not specifically address sleep apnea, they do prescribe that a person with a medical history or clinical diagnosis of any condition likely to interfere with their ability to drive safely cannot be medically qualified to operate a commercial motor vehicle in interstate commerce.

FMCSA requirements do make “voluntary” compliance a viable operating practice, in that responsibility and accountability cannot be deferred, discounted, disowned, ignored nor abdicated because of the absence of a specific regulation.

So while we continue to suffer through the FRA’s inability to move either the RSAC, or itself, forward regarding medical standards/fitness; while FRA thinks it’s actually accomplishing something in producing a regulation requiring railroads to submit plans for fatigue management five years after the due date, here’s a simple way forward: to make “voluntary” real—and we could do it, if we wanted to, citing the string of fatal accidents since the turn of the century, with an Emergency Order that simply stated:

No person with a medical condition, history or clinical diagnosis of any condition likely to interfere with his/her ability to safely execute train movements shall be certified as a locomotive engineer or train conductor. Failure to diagnose a pre-existing condition does not constitute compliance with this order.

Regulating burden minimized; voluntary action stimulated (and to the max); case not closed, but finally, opened.

Tags: , , , , ,