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Sleeping killer - the transport industry gets a wake up call over fatigue

Updated: May 12, 2020

Amanda Cropp, STUFF

It's every motorist's worst nightmare – rounding a corner to find a fully laden 50 tonne truck and trailer unit hurtling straight at you with the driver asleep at the wheel.

Fatigue is a major issue for the transport industry and one it is taking more seriously.

Quite apart from human casualties, accidents are costly when vehicles are written off and precious cargo destroyed.

As well as teaching drivers how to manage fatigue, transport companies are getting them tested and treated for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition which causes sufferers to take "micro sleeps" without warning.

Many commercial drivers fit the risk profile of being over 50, overweight, and over tired from regularly working 13 hour days.

Which is why transport companies are also fitting their vehicles with monitoring units that sound an alarm and vibrate the seat if drivers are distracted or close their eyes for too long.

Driver Craig Forbes-Williams says getting help for his sleep disorder and eating healthier transformed his life and saved his job.

Christchurch driver Craig Forbes-Williams credits the technology with saving his job and possibly his life.

Some night shifts he set off the cab alarm three times. "It scares the hell out of you."

His employer, Brenics Transport, insisted on a sleep apnea check which showed he was getting as little as six minutes quality sleep a night.

Thanks to a special mask that pumps oxygen through his nose while he sleeps, Forbes-Williams now feels "heaps better."

Brenics owner Gary Johnstone says fatigue is much more of an issue than the industry likes to admit, but it's worth attacking head on to prevent accidents and hang onto staff who would otherwise forfeit their heavy traffic licences.

"We've been able to turn around someone who would have gone down the road into a valuable team member."

The New Zealand Transport Agency says privacy issues preclude it recording the number of drivers being monitored for sleep apnea as a condition of their licences.

But over the past four years, about a third of the 750 bus, truck and courier drivers screened by health and safety company Fit for Duty had moderate to severe OSA.

Managing director Rachel Lehen says that is actually slightly lower than an Australian study which found 40 per cent of  long distance drivers tested were likely to have sleep apnea, but it's alarming nonetheless.

Sufferers end up exhausted because they repeatedly stop breathing at night.

"The brain goes, ok I'm going to have to wake you up, or we're going to die otherwise … some people have hundreds of these events over the course of a night."

Fit for Duty charges $395 for a sleep apnea test – which involves wearing an oxygen monitor on a finger overnight –and $520 for a month long trial with a continous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine like the one Forbes-Williams uses.

The machines can cost up to $2100, and some employers help cover that, or contribute to the hire fee.

"A bus company in Auckland bought machines and organised wage deductions. I figure they want their drivers to have some skin in the game and if they've paid for it, they're more likely to use it," Lehen says.

Tranzliquid has 45 long-haul drivers carting petrol and bulk bitumin and owner Jackie Carroll says half a dozen have been diagnosed with OSA since they started testing three years ago.

She doesn't begrudge spending $30 a week on CPAP rental and monitoring to ensure drivers are using the machines because of the difference it makes.

"They're not as tired and cranky, you can see it from the colouring in their faces. Most people think it's larger older workers, but it could be younger people you wouldn't expect to have sleep apnea."

Tired of waiting

For those going through the public health system, waiting lists can be lengthy.

Stuff talked to a Wairarapa driver who used up eight weeks of holiday and sick leave waiting for a sleep test in Wellington after his GP raised the issue during a medical check.

Fit for Duty consultant and Counties Manukau District Health Board sleep physician Stuart Jones says stories like that put people off seeking help.

Counties Manukau has 6500 patients on CPAP machines which it supplies free of charge, but Jones says that's not the case in all regions.

Yet he is hard pressed to think of any other medical treatment which so rapidly improves patients' quality of life and has such obvious economic spin offs.

It reduces absences due to sick leave, there are fewer work place and road accidents, and marital and family relationships improve because people are not always tired.

Glenn Heybourn handles health and safety matters for the Log Transport Safety Council which represents operators employing 4500 truck drivers.

He says the high cost of private sleep tests and a wait of up to six weeks for an appointment prompted the council to buy OSA testing units it hires out to members for $35

In the last year, 12 of the 56 drivers tested were referred on for further treatment.

Heybourn's interest in fatigue stemmed from an accident about 10 years ago when a highly experienced apparently health log truck driver inexplicably veered off the road into a mercifully empty school playground.

After initially putting the accident down to an error judgement, further investigation revealed severe sleep apnea as a possible cause, and testing confirmed that.Heybourn says the key to getting buy-in from a largely male, pretty staunch workforce was a video featuring two drivers involved in major fatigue-related accidents, and having education programmes delivered in-house by people they know and trust, instead of bringing in outside experts.

Big brother is watching you

Australian company Seeing Machines aims to have 2000 of its face monitoring software units installed in New Zealand commercial vehicles by the end of the year, and Woolworths is insisting that new carriers delivering to its supermarkets have them fitted.

The Seeing Machine alarm sounds in the cab and the seat vibrates if a driver's eyes are closed for 1.5 seconds.

Some companies are making it mandatory for trucking companies carrying their goods to install eye-monitoring technology.

A dash cam recording is sent to a monitoring centre in the United States where the incident is analysed, and the driver's dispatcher is notified within two minutes if it is deemed necessary.

The eye tracking software also detects if the driver is not looking at the road ahead for a sustained period.

Insurer NZI has paid for clients to trial the machines and head of commercial vehicle insurance Ian Taylor says most opt to keep them.

After scrutinising their 100 largest heavy vehicle claims –plenty of which topped $100,000 – Taylor reckons about a third were caused by fatigue, which came second only to distraction (mostly cell phone use).

New Zealand Seeing Machines distributor Charles Dawson says that in a normal day they record anything from five to 25 fatigue events.

Company responses range from telling the driver to pull over and have a kip, to sending out a replacement driver to take over the run.

Fatigue alerts are more common in metro drivers than in those plying long haul routes, and about 70 per cent of micro sleeps happen in the first hour of a shift. Monday mornings are bad too.

"That's around people having had time off, maybe a bit of a change in their routine, maybe not going to bed quite early enough.

"Every time we wake someone up we're potentially preventing an accident."

Enthusiasm for the technology is not universally shared by drivers some of who feel it's an invasion of their privacy.

Johnstone reminded Brenics drivers who hung their hats over the cameras that it was about saving their lives as well.

"I said 'if something terrible happens, do I say to your kids and your wife that Gary tried to help daddy, but he refused to help himself and played with the safety device?'"

First Union assistant general secretary Louisa Jones sees it as an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff response to the real issue, which is that low pay and long hours are causing fatigue.

But pricing of the technology may limit its use – Seeing Machines cost $1500 to buy and $105 a month to rent.

Road Transport Association chief executive Dennis Robertson says that is well beyond the vast majority of his 2000 members, many of whom own fewer than 10 trucks.

"A lot of small operators are not making a lot of money, they're just surviving."

The cost of fatigue

According to the Ministry of Transport (MOT) there were 585 fatigue-related crashes in 2016, the latest statistics available.

The toll included 36 deaths, more than 700 injuries, and a total social cost of $291 million. Between 2014 and 2016, the MOT says fatigue was a contributing factor in 5 per cent of truck drivers involved in fatal crashes.

Police investigating a crash could seek copies of cab recordings, but police commercial vehicle safety team head inspector Kelly Ryan said they would need a warrant.

She believes many fatigue-related heavy vehicle crashes are attributed to other causes, such as cornering too fast, when it's tiredness that leads drivers to make errors of judgement.

The Road Transport Association estimates 2000 new drivers a year are needed to replace those quitting or retiring, and Ryan fears a driver shortage is leading companies to push the limits.

"If you think about a 70 hour cumulative work period, which is what's legally allowed, [drivers] could be doing 13 hours a day for five days in a row, before a 24 hour period of rest is required.

"That's massive … if you combine that with other factors and they are not getting a good restful sleep between those time periods, it's really scary."

Lack of overnight accommodation for truckies driving to the bottom of the South Island is an example of the need for change.

"Nothing is organised for them to stay the night, so the assumption is they will turn around and come back. Things like that are not OK."

WorkSafe took its first fatigue-related prosecution in May against an agricultural contractor who was ordered to pay $90,000 in fines and reparation after a 23-year-old worker died in a tractor accident. .

He had just finished a 16.75 hour day, and in the two weeks before his death had clocked up almost 200 hours harvesting potatoes on a Pukekawa farm .

WorkSafe chief inspector Darren Handforth says employers have a responsibility to schedule rest breaks and roster appropriate periods off between shifts, and work places should encourage employees to put their hands up if they are too tired or hung over to operate safely.

But a long haul driver with more than 40 years experience says it can still be hard to resist pressure to carry on regardless.

"We're worried about young ones coming into the industry who can't say to the boss 'no, I'm pulling up because I'm falling asleep.' Older ones will stand up to them and say, 'no, I'm pulling up, safety first.'"

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