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LIRR engineers to be screened for sleep apnea after crash

The MTA will begin testing Long Island Rail Road engineers for a sleep disorder that may have factored into a deadly 2013 Metro-North derailment in the Bronx, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sen. Chuck Schumer announced Tuesday.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Tuesday issued a request for proposals from firms interested in bidding for the contract to test railroad crew members for sleep apnea — a disorder that disrupts normal breathing during sleep. It’s an expansion of a pilot testing program for Metro-North engineers begun in January of last year.

“This program helps us identify workers who may be at risk for sleep apnea, ensure they receive appropriate treatment, and ultimately create a safer MTA,” Cuomo said. “A healthy workforce is crucial to the MTA’s success and, with the expansion of this successful program, we will continue to build a stronger transportation system and keep New York moving forward.”

The Metro-North testing program followed a December 2013 Bronx derailment that killed four passengers and injured 60. Investigators said in that case, the engineer suffered from sleep apnea and was not well rested before his shift, contributing to him nodding off at the controls. Metro-North finished screening all its engineers last year, referring some for further testing.

But, despite a 2014 recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that LIRR engineers be tested for sleep apnea, the railroad’s approximately 400 engineers had been exempt from the MTA’s pilot program.

Under the new program, screenings for obstructive sleep apnea will be expanded to Metro-North conductors and Long Island Rail Road train crew members, and will be available to other MTA agencies.

Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has pushed for LIRR engineers to be tested for sleep apnea, called the new plan “the right move and the safest one.”

“I’ve argued that it shouldn’t take a Long Island Rail Road crash for the MTA to institute NTSB recommendations and test LIRR engineers for sleep disorders. I’m glad the call to make this testing a priority was heeded,” Schumer said in a statement. “Time and again, the NTSB’s common-sense recommendations have taken far too long to enact, or were carried out in a piecemeal way. So, today’s news of real action by the MTA to address this dangerous situation should help commuters rest a little easier.”

MTA Chief Safety Officer David Mayer said that while the agency is not required to test its workers, “the MTA recognizes the safety benefits of sleep apnea screening and treatment.”

Kevin Sexton, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainman Division 269, which represents LIRR engineers, said his union has not reached an agreement with the MTA to test the union’s members, but added, “We are prepared to meet and discuss any and all safety issues, including sleep apnea testing.”

Dr. Michael Weinstein, director of the Winthrop Hospital Sleep Disorders Center, said it was “excellent news” that MTA was expanding its testing for sleep apnea, which could “certainly impair a person’s ability to drive a train.”

“It predisposes a person to lapses in attention. It predisposes them to potentially falling asleep,” Weinstein said. “And both of those things have potentially disastrous consequences.”

Some symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea:

Excessive daytime sleepiness

Difficulty concentrating during the day

Experiencing mood changes, such as depression or irritability

Loud snoring

Observed episodes of breathing cessation during sleep

Abrupt awakenings accompanied by shortness of breath

Difficulty staying asleep (insomnia)

Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat

Awakening with chest pain

Morning headache

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