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Sleep Disorders and Public Safety

sleep public safety

Can you get fired for having a sleep disorder? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

There is an issue that is rapidly rising in the areas of safety sensitive employment like over the road truck drivers and airline pilots that seems to pit the rights of the 1 against the good of the many. Pilots, train conductors, truck drivers, and other people whose jobs involve transporting or securing people and things around the country are “crying foul” as new laws go into effect that require more extensive medical examinations than before.

To outsiders, it may seem strange that these occupations would require each person to go through regular medical examinations in order to keep their job. While most people know that companies can require regular drug testing and that testing positive for illicit drug use can be grounds for dismissal, we see this as different from a medical disqualification. The medical exam and health-based dismissal is not new to many of these industries. But what these employees can be dismissed for is; and that is what’s responsible for the turmoil.

Research in recent years has given us a much better understanding of sleep and what is happening in our bodies and brains when we close our eyes. It has also given us a picture of what “normal” sleep looks like which in turn made it possible to define abnormal sleep habits. These abnormalities are what we call sleep disorders today. A sleep disorder is a medical condition that impacts a person’s ability to sleep normally and makes it difficult or impossible to get the sleep they need for good health.

One of the most common sleep disorders is called sleep apnea.   A person with this disorder will stop breathing over and over during asleep. Each pause in breath is called an apnea and each apnea can last from a second or two to 10 or more minutes.   One of the most immediate side effects experienced by those with this sleep disorder is daytime sleepiness. This means that the person with sleep apnea will have difficulty staying awake during the day, especially at times when they need to be awake or when it would be inappropriate to fall asleep, like while driving.

Understanding how daytime sleepiness manifests and what it can do is critical to understanding why the new rules and laws that are scheduled to go into effect are so detrimental. While one could argue that the decision to take illicit drugs is a choice – a decision made by the person who will lose their job if they are caught.   Those suffering from a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea, may not even realize that they have the condition. Even if they do, it is definitely not something that they can choose to have or not have. This means employers who suspend or fire a worker based on their sleep disorder may end up having to defend that decision in court.

The key for employers is to recognize that this is a medical disorder and ensure that employees with this kind of medical problem receive the same consideration and accommodation as those suffering from other medical problems.

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